1920: The Other Russo-Japanese War
The Massacre at Nikolaevsk-on-Amur (尼港事件).
Table of Contents:
§2. The Macrocosm: Japan’s Intervention in Siberia.
§3. The Microcosm: Nikolaevsk-on-Amur in 1920.
§4. Prelude to a Massacre.
§5.1 First the Massacre, then Utopia?
§5.2 Rape and/or/as Race-Relations.
§5.3 The Massacre of the Japanese.
§5.4 Coup and Counter-Coup: Was the Violence Avertable?
§5.5 After the Utopia, Immolation.
§6.1 Conclusions on Geopolitics.
§6.2 Conclusions on Communism.
In diverse cultural, political and historical circumstances, Communists have led and directed massacres; for those who have studied the history of Communism extensively, the particulars of a massacre in Cambodia are often strangely reminiscent of a massacre in China or Russia, despite the very real differences defining the political context for the particular acts of mass-murder being compared. The massacre at Nikolaevsk-on-Amur is unique in various ways, but the purpose of this paper is, ultimately, to try to sketch out the “anatomy” of the massacre itself, and to draw conclusions on the motivating factors that seem to produce this pattern, despite the particulars of the milieu. Our thesis, therefore, is that we can study the disaster on the Amur as a microcosm, identifying features that support generalization, and others that are peculiar to the example. In the pages to follow, those familiar with almost any other example of historically-real Communism will find striking parallels between this case-study and whatever instance they’re already familiar with, e.g., from the collectivization of sewing-machines to the spiraling demands for party-line conformity, purges, coup and counter-coup attempts, and so on.
The 1920 massacre at Nikolaevsk-on-Amur (….) resulted in the deaths of roughly 700 Japanese and the total devastation of a small city, killing perhaps 6,000 people immediately. (Gutman, 1993, p. ix) This had implications for the borders of China, Russia and Japan, three countries then locked in a geopolitical and ideological struggle that neither began with World War One nor ended with World War Two.
The research question being asked here may be put in both contemporary and historical context as follows: at the beginning of the year 1920, an observer of Russian politics might have been regarded as insane (or else as some sort of insincere demagogue) for saying, “We can’t let the Communists occupy Nikolaevsk, because if they do, they’ll kill everyone!” In retrospect, such an observer would have been entirely correct, and, at least in theory, he-or-she could have backed up the claim with the careful study of events from 1917–1919: in other words, even at this very early date (in the history of state Communism), the massacre was predictable, and yet predicting it would have been considered madness, or, at least, as an unfair presumption. This problem of predictability has implications for every era after 1920: the Nikolaevsk case-study could have been learned from and, in many ways, it would have revealed the pattern behind many of the violent tendencies, exhibited by Communists again and again, within Asia and around the world. However, writing this essay in 2016, I can say that we still deal with same sort of apprehension (i.e., that someone must either be crazy or a right-wing demagogue to claim such things) when we attempt to frankly discuss the factors tending toward tyranny and massacres under Communist governments (in China, Cambodia, or any other context). So, the implication of this study is that many of the “unpredictable” features of Communism become predictable if we are willing to take a detached look at the motivations and procedures that were at work in this one (well-documented) case-study.
Unlike many other political movements, the Communists still enjoy a presumption of having good intentions, even when these atrocities are examined in retrospect: there is a very strange “burden of proof” placed on anyone who would doubt the good intentions of the revolutionaries (even in looking at tremendously dark chapters in the history of Communism, such as China’s hundred flowers bloom campaign [百花運動], or the alliance between the United States and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge).*1 As a concession, I understand that many people have trouble reconciling the egalitarian claims of Communist ideology with the historically-real accounts of massacres, but, on another level, this problem reflects the failure of the last century’s education-system (i.e., the teaching of history and politics) in preparing the public to cope with the contradictions seen within the legacy of the 20th century. In examining the massacre at Nikolaevsk, we have to challenge ourselves to understand why this was predictable, and the extent to which it does not represent “an exception to the rule”, but, instead, really does describe aspects of “the rule”. Our research question, therefore, is to investigate the “universal” (or at least systematic and predictable) aspects of Communism instigating massacre in this case-study (the 1920 尼港事件).
- *1 There are some related reflections (with reference to Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in retrospect) in an article titled, “A Tragedy of Good Intentions”. (Joseph, 1986) Bo Yibo (薄一波) is quoted as saying, “the masses excused us for doing wrong because our intentions were good”. (Ibid., p. 425) Joseph argues that, “The tendency to remind the public of the ‘good intentions’ of those who perpetrated the movement” is part and parcel of “…[an] effort to deny that the failures like the GLF reflect shortcomings of socialism…”. (Ibid., p. 449)
§2. The Macrocosm: Japan’s Intervention in Siberia.
It may easily be said that Japan’s Siberian intervention was one of the most important events in the country’s history, and the primary reason for this is its inexorable connection to the Rice Riots of 1918.*2 These riots are indisputably one of the major turning-points of Japanese history: they arose, directly, from the food-shortages caused by the Siberian intervention (i.e., appropriations to feed the soldiers, etc.). The rioters were not purely interested in their own privation: they demonstrated widespread opposition to the Siberian intervention, and this resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister (Terauchi Masatake, 寺内正毅). The next Prime Minister, Hara Takashi (原敬) came to power specifically because of his “anti-war” position, and the war in question was the Siberian intervention (not World War One). More generally, this was a period of expanding suffrage in Japan (many more could vote in 1920 than 1917, etc.), when both procedural democracy and public engagement with politics was deepening: the Rice Riots sharpened the awareness of public opinion in the minds of Japan’s ruling elites (including the military commanders, who often behaved as a government unto themselves in this era). After the riots, the establishment was forced to reconsider objectives with reference to war abroad, economics at home, the process of courting public opinion, and the dynamic links between the three:
The outbreak of the Rice Riots brought a dawning realization to [at] least a portion of the [army’s] general staff that the army was now facing a political crisis of the highest order, indeed one without precedent in its history. For officers convinced of the necessity for the army and the people to be united, the sight of imperial soldiers involved in violent clashes with Japanese civilians was deeply distressing.(Dunscomb, 2011, p. 72)
To some extent, we might say that this was the shock of discovering the informal checks-and-balances in creating domestic support for foreign wars in the 20th century: it was not enough for the government to simply declare a policy, and then censor all opinion to the contrary — and this was not for want of trying. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 70 et seq., on censorship.)
- *2 Secondarily, also, changes in the border between Russia and Japan concerning Sakhalin Island (a.k.a. Karafuto [樺太], from the Japanese perspective) were a direct consequence of the Siberian intervention (i.e., another effect that indelibly marks these events as historically- significant, from both a local and geopolitical perspective). Incidentally, this border is still contested today (i.e., in 2016); it was shifted repeatedly before and after this period, and never resolved (by a treaty) after WW2, with continued protests from the Japanese side.
In a situation resembling President Obama’s Iraq policy (in some respects), Hara came to power with the public expecting him to end an unpopular war as soon as possible, and, like Obama, he did not quite deliver on that promise. In the last few days of 1918 (Dec. 28th), Hara made the pronouncement (familiar, again, from wars in our own times) that the number of troops in Siberia could now be reduced because the objectives of the mission had already been accomplished (i.e., something clearly untrue, unless we use a great deal of imagination in defining what the objectives of the occupation were supposed to be); about 26,000 troops would be coming home immediately. In the last few days of 1918 (Dec. 28th), Hara made the pronouncement (familiar, again, from wars in our own times) that the number of troops in Siberia could now be reduced because the objectives of the mission had already been accomplished (i.e., something clearly untrue, unless we use a great deal of imagination in defining what the objectives of the occupation were supposed to be); about 26,000 troops would be coming home immediately. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 84)
Dunscomb adds to this a significant layer of interpretation: he states (as fact) that Japan planned to continue to pursue the same objectives as before with a smaller number of troops, i.e., in his opinion, they would continue supporting the anti-Bolshevik government based in Omsk and “[hoping] for the army to carry out its project of attempting to organize the Russian Far East into a Japanese economic sphere.” (Ibid., p. 84–5) Although I respect his conclusion on this matter, we should seriously consider the opposite possibility: that the Prime Minister eliminated the means to achieving this goal because he was (genuinely) not pursuing this goal. I emphasize that this was possible, because it becomes significant in understanding the seemingly-contradictory orders given to the Japanese military in Nikolaevsk, discussed in the pages to follow.
In many ways, the situation that Hara had inherited was untenable: the Americans had established “rules” for the intervention that made it impossible to win, and made the operation’s goals unclear or even self-defeating. From a Japanese perspective, they were being told to deploy troops, and yet not to intervene, and not to fight against the Bolsheviks; from Woodrow Wilson’s perspective, U.S. policy had been consistent (and simply misunderstood by the rest of the world) as he had always given orders that the U.S. troops in Siberia should not oppose the Bolsheviks, instead carrying out a military occupation without interference in Russia’s internal affairs — and revolution was an internal affair. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 67) This was, Dunscomb remarks, “to the often-intense frustration of the Japanese, the Czechoslovaks, the Americans (both at home and in Siberia), the Russians, and numerous subsequent historians.” (Ibidem)
Again, I must juxtapose Dunscomb’s interpretation with the real possibility that Hara’s administration understood and acquiesced in Wilson’s strategy: it was a strategy that amounted to stabilizing the region during its transition to Bolshevik rule. Although this strategy could not be presented quite so bluntly to the American people, that is what Wilson’s directives amounted to in Siberia, and, as we will see below, the orders given to the Japanese troops in Nikolaevsk were consistent with this strategy. To be clear: Dunscomb has numerous sources at his disposal, reflecting opinions in the Japanese press and military command at the time. However, his analysis seems to discard the possibility that Hara was being sincere in indicating to the Americans (in Nov.–Dec. of 1918) that the Siberian intervention was a mess, and that Japan’s new administration was going to follow the American strategy in extricating themselves from it as soon as possible, not repeating the mistakes of the earlier administration. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 83) Dunscomb tends to present this, instead, as a contrast between overt and covert Japanese policy (“…a constant tension between the avowed policy of the Hara cabinet and what was actually taking place on the ground in Siberia throughout 1919”). (Op. cit., p. 85)
The question of what American policy in Siberia hoped to achieve is now obscured by propaganda and counter-propaganda that has become difficult to interpret after almost a century has passed; so far as communicating the purpose of the mission to the public, the justification for the American presence was to help evacuate (i.e., rescue) the Czech Legion (i.e., some wayward Czech troops from WWI, totally fascinating to the western newspapers at the time, regarded as heroes in the Russian Civil War, etc.). This was accomplished by Jan. 20th, 1919. (White, 1950, p. 258) Although this may seem like a bizarre footnote-to-history, the marooned Czechs actually were the reason for U.S. involvement given by President Wilson’s own pen, and this entailed limitations on the intervention. (Ibidem)
It would be a mistake to overlook Wilson’s explicitly-stated motives: although some wanted to interpret the mission as a counter-revolutionary plot (i.e., marching against Moscow), this is incompatible with the evidence. The U.S. committed 7,000 soldiers to Siberia, whereas the Czech legion numbered 70,000; (Ibid. p. 258–9) the U.S. troops actually did what Wilson said they would, stabilizing the exit-route (including the railway) for the Czechs to escape eastward to the Pacific Ocean (and eventually back to Europe by sea). The American troops in Siberia never attempted anything like a march toward Moscow: instead of moving from east to west, the whole “logic” of the mission went from west to east, as part of this evacuation strategy. So, again, we should not ignore the possibility that the ostensible reasons for the U.S. involvement were the actual reasons, at least from Wilson’s own perspective (i.e., although both the left-wing and the right-wing may now be eager to see it as an attempt to reverse the Bolshevik revolution).*3
- *3 This remains controversial, and the controversy is outside the scope of this essay. J.A. White quotes a White army-general as having concluded (in 1919) that the Americans (unlike the other powers in the intervention) had genuinely resolved not to oppose Bolshevik rule, and not to support the White side, but merely to extricate the Czechs. (White, 1950, p. 262) With this, I agree, and it should not be surprising as Wilson stated it himself, so explicitly: however, this basic fact has become politically inconvenient in historical retrospect (for both the left-wing and the right-wing, as aforementioned), and, perhaps, there is some bias arising from the fact that the Czech legion now seems like a trivial matter compared to the implications of the outcome of the Russian revolution.
This had consequences for “the allies” in this peculiar mission: the Americans insisted that they would not allow the Japanese, French or British to send any troops west of Irkutsk. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 76) The absurdity of this is difficult to illustrate by maps alone: the supposed capital of the Anti-Bolshevik resistance had been in Omsk (until it was conquered by the Bolsheviks during November of 1919), and Omsk is indeed very far west of Irkutsk. Even with the roads we have today (in 2016), the trip from Irkutsk to Omsk is about 2,500 km, winding through difficult terrain; conversely, the distance from Irkutsk to Nikolaevsk-on-Amur is (with today’s roads) a staggering 4,000 km, on a route that winds through Khabarovsk, and then follows the course of the Amur river.*4 Taking these two facts together (1. the “non-interference” with the revolution, and 2. the geographic separation from Omsk), it is not at all unreasonable to say that Woodrow Wilson was simply trying to stabilize the area (and handle the refugees, the peculiar situation of the marooned Czechs, etc.) during the transition to Bolshevik rule. In all of the American communications to the Japanese, it is explicit that they are trying to avoid establishing (and supporting) a separate puppet-state in Russia’s far east. For Japan, prior to the Rice Riots, the latter temptation must have been very real: they had found a willing “puppet” in Gregorii Semenov, who had carved out a separate state for himself in the Transbaikal region, partly on the strength of his ethnic identity as part-Buryat and part-Cossack. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 76)
- *4 Based on various indirect mentions-in-passing found in my reading, I surmise that most East-West traffic in this period (ca. 1917–1920) passed through Harbin (哈爾濱市), i.e., that effective overland access to-and-from Russia’s east coast required passage through territory thatis now Chinese (areas where Japanese control/influence was considerable at that time, I might add).
The implicit question in such instances (that were real, and really fought-for, not merely hypothetical) was of the extent to which Eastern Siberia could be recognized as Asian rather than European: it would be difficult to describe the Japanese as reckless imperialists if they were trying to exclude a European power from a region (like the Transbaikal) that was then ethnically Buryat and using Mongolian-and-Chinese as the local languages-of-commerce. (These questions recur, of course, when our attention moves further east, to where the indigenous people are Nivkhi, with at least a few Ainu present, in Nikolaevsk-on-Amur.) At any other time, the Japanese might well have slipped into the familiar idiom of defending Asia for the Asians, seeking to make the Transbaikal into another (semi-independent colony like) Man-zhou-guo (滿洲國); but I must emphasize that, at this juncture, the long shadow of the Rice Riots had put a tremendous chill on Japan’s dreams- of-empire, and, as mentioned, the new Prime Minister had just come to power on the strength of promises to end such expansionism in Siberia. Conversely, from the Russian perspective, the railway-line passed through all of these places (Omsk, Irkutsk, the Transbaikal, etc.); the trans-Siberian railway was imagined to be priceless, both economically and strategically, so the Russians would be doomed and determined to fight to control all of this territory, and they would not have allowed it to be ceded to any other power — i.e., not unless some tremendous price were paid in blood. Of course, the memory of World War One was then clear in everyone’s recollection (in 1919–20), and all parties had become accustomed to (and fatigued by) extremely high body-counts in resolving border-disputes.
From the perspective of the ruling elites in Japan’s major cities, the internal violence of the Rice Riots made the idea of fostering a new Japanese satellite in Siberia impossible, but, of course, it was all-too-tempting an idea for the troops on the ground in Siberia, and the alternatives were bleak. To some extent, Japan’s potential puppets (Semenov in the Transbaikal and Ivan Kalmykov in Khabarovsk) were both anti-Red and anti-White: they were defiant of the (would-be) government in Omsk, and sought local autonomy. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 93) Much of the American hostility toward their Japanese allies in this period was justified by the Japanese army’s support for these local “warlords”, but the question must be asked: who else could the Japanese have possibly supported, given that the Bolsheviks were actively engaged in combat against the Japanese?
On Feb. 26th, 1919, the Bolsheviks successfully attacked and annihilated over 200 Japanese soldiers (killing the entire Tanaka Battalion, leaving only four badly-wounded survivors). (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 89) Nobody could complain that the Bolsheviks had been dishonorable in this combat, if the two sides are considered to be “at war”; however, when one side is under orders not to fight against the other, you have an impossible asymmetry. The Hara administration’s interpretation of Woodrow Wilson’s idea of “non-interference” was quite etherial in contrast to the threat of sudden, violent death, and the Japanese really were under attack from Bolshevik forces. As we will see in detail in the case of Nikolaevsk, the orders to comply with the transition to Bolshevik rule could be tantamount to suicide for the Japanese soldiers; and, conversely, there was no reason why Wilson’s peculiar doctrine of “non-interference” should benefit the Bolshevik side only. In this context, the remaining Japanese army presence (i.e., reduced in numbers by Hara, as aforementioned) cannot be faulted for supporting local anti-Bolshevik warlords (of any stripe, so to speak), and yet virtually all of the written sources fault them for exactly this reason. In Sept. of 1919, the Americans formally reproached the Japanese for failing to live up to their commitment to “non-interference”, demanding that the Japanese “suppress” (i.e., fight against) their own allies, such as Semenov (fighting against the Bolsheviks for local autonomy, etc.). (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 98–99) The Americans were criticizing the Japanese for failing to do the impossible: given the situation the troops were stationed in, it was inevitable that they would cooperate with whoever was not trying to kill them. In these comments, I differ significantly from Dunscomb, who interprets the situation as one in which the Hara government was struggling to impose its (pro-American) decisions on an insubordinate military (he regards the Japanese military as seriously at-fault for pursuing goals contrary to the civilian government’s orders).
While the Rice Riots were indeed a momentous event in 1918, there were many events of astonishing scale in the very next year to distract the Japanese public from the questions about Siberia that those riots had posed. 1919 was the year that World War One had its legal resolution with the Treaty of Versailles (and the negotiations very much concerned the Japanese); it was also the year of the March First Movement and the May Fourth Movement (五四運動), with connected uprisings and events in Korea and China, raising serious questions for the (then-evolving) Japanese empire. The Rice Riots in 1918 forced Siberia to the top of the Japanese political agenda, and the massacre at Nikolaevsk in 1920 would do so again, soon enough; but there were very meaningful distractions in 1919 to direct the attention of both the government and the public away from the occupation of Siberia.
With the end of World War One, generally, the Americans and Europeans lost interest in their Siberian expeditions, and the disengagement of these other parties from the mission would leave the Japanese to pursue their own policy with more of a free hand (although this happened, formally, during the year 1920, we might say that the change of heart was clear during 1919, after the Treaty of Versailles). Finally, in the last few months of 1919, it became clear to any detached observer that the White government based in Omsk no longer posed any threat to Moscow; the idea that the Communist Revolution would actually be reversed (and that the Whites would march west from Siberia, across European Russia) had ended with the year 1919 itself. If Western attempts to stifle Communism in Russia had been half-hearted before, we might say they were quarter-hearted now.
At this point, the American fear was not that the Bolsheviks would win (as this was accepted as inevitable), instead they were afraid that Japan would regard the Russian Civil War as an opportunity to annex territory. This was an influential assumption at the time, and it remains influential in the writing of history in retrospect. Dunscomb reproduces an internal diplomatic communiqué from July 7th, 1919, in which the American side demonstrates that they regarded the Japanese army as violating both the letter and the spirit of their agreements with the U.S.,(Dunscomb, 2011, p. 93) but a more charitable interpretation of the same facts might instead conclude that the Japanese were doing their best to cope with an impossible situation on the ground (as with the conditions in Nikolaevsk, to be described below). Fundamentally, the Japanese had been cajoled into supporting the mission by western powers in the first place: in late 1917, France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch (then in a position of decisive power and influence) was the first person to propose that Japan should intervene (at an allied powers conference from Nov. 29th–Dec. 3rd, 1917). (Halliday, 1975, p. 96) Within Japan, many famous voices (including Kita Ikki, 北一輝) then participated in wide-ranging debates as to whether or not Japan should intervene in Siberia. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 32, et. seq.) Japan’s extremely-influential bureaucrat Goto Shinpei (後藤新平) advocated intervention several months later (1918), apparently fearing that Japan could not allow the U.S. to occupy the mainland alone. (Ibidem) So, to some extent, the fear of opportunists arriving to annex the Siberian coast was mutual: the Japanese thought that the Americans (or even the Germans) could do it, and the Americans feared the Japanese could do it. Woodrow Wilson regarded the Japanese as relentlessly pursuing an empire in Siberia (despite Hara’s assurances to the contrary), but the reality was that Japanese leadership had encountered the most serious opposition imaginable in the form of the Rice Riots (of 1918), and the Americans failed to appreciate that this had actually installed a new administration, pursuing the very opposite goal as its founding promise (extrication from Siberia, not further commitment). It is almost needless to say that some Japanese militarists were advocating for expansion at all times, but not Prime Minister Hara.
The mismatch between Wilson’s perception and Japanese reality (in 1918–1920) could hardly be more extreme. Indeed, we need to appreciate how much “anti-Siberian-war” sentiment there was in Japan prior to the Nikolaevsk massacre in order to understand the foreign-policy significance of the massacre’s discovery, and the real political change it brought about in Japan. Prior to the massacre, Japan’s doubts were very real, very deep, and the danger of being overstretched (militarily and economically) had just been illustrated by starvation (and rioting) as a consequence of the rice requisitioned to feed troops in Siberia in 1918. So, in this instance, the stereotype of the Japanese endlessly pursuing imperial adventures must be set aside.
§3. The Microcosm: Nikolaevsk-on-Amur in 1920.
Before the massacre, the town of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur was cosmopolitan in ways both shallow and profound: it had a gold-mine as well as a fishing industry, and its population had grown from 12,000 in 1914 to 16,000 in 1920. (Gutman, 1993, p. xiii–xiv) Maps can be misleading: this was not an insubstantial, frontier town, nor was its economy reliant on the fur-trade. Remarkably, the town included:
- Two churches, one synagogue and one mosque, plus a five-domed cathedral.
- Five schools in total, plus a library.
- Two locally-printed newspapers.
- Electricity and telephones (though no running water).
- Two movie houses, plus at least one theater or opera-house. (Ibid., p. xiii–xiv)
The synagogue and the mosque hint at one sort of cosmopolitanism, but, at the same time, the area’s historical (and then-ongoing) links to China, Japan and even Korea had also resulted in significant populations from all of these countries settling in the town. The most prominent company in the town (involved in gold mining) was British-owned. (Ibid., p. xv) There was a significant American presence, with an American club. (Ibid., p. xiii) The largest group of indigenous people (in this area) were the Nivkhi (a.k.a. Gilyak), although adjacent groups (including the Ainu) were present in small numbers; some Nivkhi did march alongside the Chinese and Koreans, in the Bolshevik army that would destroy Nikolaevsk. (Ibid., p. xxviii)
The cosmopolitan nature of the town is more than just a passive aspect of the setting: in Russian studies, the concept of the Piedmont Principle is used to explain the motives and bureaucratic patterns at work in certain types of persecution within the U.S.S.R. (Martin, 2001, p. 313) Very briefly, this is a theory that explains the Soviet Union’s recurrent tendency toward the persecution of ethnic minorities (despite explicitly-articulated commitments to uplift them in Communist ideology, and in Soviet “Nationalities Policy”, etc.) in terms of a systemic misperception of any form of foreign influence as a contagion, “infecting” people with the status of class-enemies. Terry Martin coined this term primarily with reference to the Ukraine and other ethnic groups located far to the west of Siberia; however, it is useful in reference to Nikolaevsk, in offering us the following clarification. Whereas, (1) sometimes, ethnic persecution is simply motivated by ethnic- hatred (racism, bigotry, etc.), (2) one of the recurrent features of Soviet Communism is this pattern (dubbed the Piedmont Principle) whereby the establishment finds it impossible to isolate-and-control ethnic minorities, and therefore impossible to trust them, leading to persecution even when the motives are not ethnic hatred (i.e., instead, the persecution is an attempt to suppress the “contagion” of foreign influence). This was in part because “foreignness” and “cosmopolitanism” were (irrationally) seen to be bourgeois, even when people were “foreign” because they were members of minorities indigenous to the U.S.S.R.’s territory. To offer an example from Sakhalin island, an indigenous (Nivkhi) man celebrated as a local (pro-Communist) leader could be marked as an enemy of the people for wearing a Japanese wrist-watch. (Grant, 1995, p. 167) Even as early as 1920, cosmopolitanism itself could mark someone as bourgeois — and (as we will see) this was enough to mark them for death in Nikolaevsk.
Although it is a shallow point, none of the town’s cosmopolitan vitality (ca. 1919–1920) would be obvious from a map, nor from the ruins left after the massacre. On the contrary, looking at the map, Nikolaevsk seems to be in a disadvantageous position in many ways: the nearest connection to the railroad was in Khabarovsk, entailing a trip by horses-on-ice during the winter (once the river had frozen solid) that required more than one week. (Id., p. xvii) The town was inaccessible during the long months when the river was neither wholly-frozen (allowing horse-drawn sleds), nor wholly-thawed (allowing boat travel). This, also, will be a strategic consideration in the massacre.
Ultimately, however, this was the edge of Asia, where Siberia met Sakhalin, an area that had been notorious as the hated home of convict-laborers, draft-dodgers, army-deserters and exiles.*5 The criminal and ex-criminal element were significant factors here, and the potential for these convicts to be radicalized had been exacerbated by the sweeping amnesty granted by Kerensky (the head of the provisional government prior to Lenin’s coup d’état) in March of 1917. It is needless to say that convicts banished to Siberia would still be in Siberia when they were freed by this Amnesty; even if they would have enjoyed traveling to Moscow (or any other major city) rather than volunteering to fight against the Japanese in Siberia, it would have been extremely difficult for an unmoneyed person to travel across the country while the conditions of the Civil War persisted. As we will see, below, one of the simplest recruiting tools the Communists had was the promise of a salary: for a liberated convict in such dire conditions, that alone could be a powerful motivation to march to war. This “criminal element” is a peculiar aspect of the strategic situation that the Japanese troops were struggling with in Siberia, different from any other theater of revolution or war. However, blaming the convicts (for the brutality of what was to ensue) would be misleading.
- *5 The image of Sakhalin Island as “hell on earth” has been immortalized by the famous author Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), whoseaccount was based on a journey of 1890; he was definitely not the only intellectual to reflect on the bleak conditions on Russia’s Pacific Coast, but he is (by far) the best-known in English translation. The reputation of the area was, as stated, odious in the extreme. However, the translator’s preface to Gutman (1993) describes a wonderful childhood in a charming town (i.e., Nikolaevsk, prior to its devastation).
One major point overlooked by Gutman (i.e., my most important source) is the background of the November, 1917 elections in Russia: these were elections that the Bolsheviks lost. (Kenez, 2006, p. 32–33) Gutman probably omits to discuss this aspect because it was well-understood by his audience at the time (or, possibly, he may omit it for propagandistic reasons, i.e., as unflattering to his side of the argument), but the elections were of enormous importance to the civil war in Siberia generally, and to Nikolaevsk in particular. In brief, the Bolsheviks received less than 25% of the vote, whereas their main competition on the far left gained 41%: this was the Socialist Revolutionary Party, generally called “The S.R.s”. If Lenin had not quashed the election (for failing to return the desired results), then, obviously, Lenin would not have been the leader of Russia (and, moreover, Russia would not have become a dictatorship, but would have instead been a parliamentary democracy with an elected Socialist Revolutionary government; the Bolsheviks would have voiced their opinions as the official opposition in that parliament). Those who are unfamiliar with the brutality of 20th century Communism might assume that the Bolsheviks would have been happy enough to co-operate with with another party that was so far to the left of the spectrum (the name “Socialist Revolutionary” is self-explanatory), but no: as we shall see in Nikolaevsk, the Bolshevik attitude was not merely one of intolerance toward their competition, but one of exterminating their competition.
Many historians overlook the quashed election-results as a footnote in history, but, on the contrary, I must give tremendous emphasis to this unique factor that shaped the process of the war in Siberia and the final outcome in Nikolaevsk. Whereas the Chinese Communists (circa 1949–1951) could optimistically imagine that the vast majority of the people supported them, the Bolsheviks in 1917–1920 could not: the elections proved that more than 75% of the country opposed Lenin, and because Bolshevik support was clustered in industrial areas, the ballots showed nearly 100% of people voted against them in rural areas such as Eastern Siberia:
The most popular revolutionary party throughout Siberia was neither the Bolshevik nor the Menshevik faction… but the peasant-oriented S.R. party led by V.M. Chernov… (Forsyth, 1992, p. 230)
From the Bolshevik perspective, the vast majority of these people had identified themselves as enemies of the party, and as enemies in the class struggle. This was not a factor in China, Cambodia, Laos, or any other Communist regime when it had first arisen: Lenin’s side was deeply embarrassed by the elections, and a far-left group like the S.R.s was ideologically more of a threat than the far-right supporters of the restoration of the monarchy. Although Lenin may have been inclined to exterminate his enemies in any case, we also have to note that the circumstances in Siberia forced the S.R.s and the Whites (definitely including fascists, and, more commonly, religious conservatives) into a peculiar alliance: the reality at Omsk was that the anti-Bolshevik government-of-resistance was initially founded by fleeing members of the elected parliament. In its earliest stages (now much-forgotten in retrospect) this gave the Omsk government tremendous legitimacy in the eyes of both the Russian people and international donors — and it was, also, a government-in-exile controlled by the far-left, democratically elected representatives, who had (briefly!) traveled to Moscow to try to take their seats in parliament.
Although the Bolsheviks regarded the S.R.s as marked-for-execution, the feeling was not mutual: as we shall see in the microcosm of Nikolaevsk, the S.R.s felt that they had more in common with the Bolsheviks than they had in common with the White military leaders, who had led a coup d’état against the S.R.s (and other ex-parliamentary delegates) in November of 1918. Without editorializing excessively, a reasonable person (with even the most Machiavellian political education) should have been able to negotiate a peaceful reconciliation between the S.R.s and the Bolsheviks after this point: the (pro-democracy/parliamentarian) socialists in Omsk were outraged by the military dictatorship that had been foisted onto them (feeling it discredited their cause), and they even called for the assassination of the leader of the military coup (Admiral Kolchak), leading a small (failed) revolt against the White dictatorship in December of 1918. To make matters worse for Lenin, the far-left groups of Siberia had already organized themselves into a dizzying array of local, democratic organizations, with beliefs that closely resembled Bolshevism, and often included local Bolsheviks (not following orders from Moscow) in coalition-governments of various kinds (frequently called zemstvo, but sometime styled as a local council, local parliament or local soviet (sensu stricto), varying from town to town throughout Siberia). (Forsyth, 1992, p. 229–232) Again, while a hypothetical “reasonable person” might regard this as a positive development for the Bolsheviks, and expect to see peaceful reconciliation between the far-left groups, a reader with a deeper, historical understanding of Communism would understand that the Bolsheviks in Moscow perceived this as a threat: this was a closely-comparable claimant to Communist ideals that had (1) emerged as a concept in Siberia, (2) had organized itself into local (democratic) forms of self-government, and (3) expressed interest in local autonomy:
Indeed, up to February 1918 the Siberian soviets [i.e., local, non-Moscow controlled S.R. coalitions, etc.] not only supported the ‘bourgeois’ idea of an autonomous ‘Siberian Socialist Republic’, but opposed the conclusion of a peace treaty with Germany which was a central feature of Lenin’s policy. […][As an example, even after the area was conquered by the Moscow-Bolsheviks,] in Tomsk, where it is claimed that the soviet assumed power on 6 December , the Bolshevik government was in fact repudiated the next day by an All-Siberian Provisional Council, which stood for the autonomy of Siberia and underlined its belief in a federal structure for Russia by establishing contact with the independent Ukrainian government. Preparations went ahead for the convocation of a Siberian Regional Duma [i.e., elected parliament] in Tomsk on 7 January, 1918 [and this was soon quashed by the Bolsheviks, with force, arrests, etc.]. (Forsyth, 1992 p. 230)
From the Bolshevik perspective, this was (in many ways) a more insidious threat than the direct enmity of the White army-generals: the mania to stamp out locally-popular Socialism was fueled, in part, by the deep embarrassment of the 1917 elections. Fundamentally, Lenin’s power was based on quashing a parliament in Moscow, and the elected members of that parliament had fled to Siberia, where they now seemed to be inspiring new (local) parliaments (with far-left ideals, closely resembling Communism), giving life to local separatist movements, and to be breaking bread White army generals (like Kolchak) to some extent (even though the hostility between these two parties (the S.R.s vs. the Whites) was instense, as mentioned).
Both geographically and ideologically, it must be understood that the Bolsheviks were hardened by this experience before they reached Nikolaevsk (i.e., moving from west to east): Lenin’s struggle in Siberia had been a struggle against both local democracy and national/Soviet democracy even more than it had been a struggle against White army-generals. It is easy for an outside observer to forget this fact, partly because the western powers (engaged in the Siberian intervention) wanted to forget this fact: it would have been convenient to imagine that the anti-Bolshevik resistance was simply one, unified “White Army”, but it wasn’t. The elected Socialist Revolutionaries both claimed to be the legitimate government of Russia at this time, and (legally speaking) they actually were the legitimate government. The fact that these elected parliamentarians fled from Moscow to Siberia, where there was talk of separatism, etc., could only be received as the most dire sort of existential threat by Lenin’s camp. Of course, under the mentality of the Piedmont Principle (explained above), no matter how inclined local Socialists may have been to compromise,*6 the fact that they received aid/assistance from foreigners (the Japanese, Americans, etc.) marked them for extermination.
- *6 In contrast to the example of Tomsk quoted from Forsyth, above, the local councils, zemstvo, etc., frequently did offer to form coalition governments with the Bolsheviks to end the fighting, and they often had “local Bolsheviks” (not following orders from Moscow) already sitting as representatives on their councils, and so on.
This brings us to our final strategic consideration (in describing the “microcosm” where the massacre was to unfold), and it is an extreme case of Bolshevik attitudes being hardened into near- genocidal norms in the course of the Civil War, and in the west-to-east progression described: the Cossacks. Neither Gutman nor Dunscomb give much emphasis to them, but the history of the Cossacks in Siberia could be a separate tome unto itself. Although they were not indigenous to the Amur river (nor to the Pacific coast), they were an important ethnic group in the area surrounding Nikolaevsk, and they were seriously contesting the future of Russia generally, and the possibility of Siberian independence specifically, in the years 1917–1920:
In October 1917 at Blagoveshchensk,*7 the centre of the 50,000 strong Amur Cossack community, a “Committee of Public Salvation” was formed, uniting Constitutional Democrats, Menshevik S.D.s, and S.R.s. As democratic forces in the region became organized, they adopted a policy of complete autonomy for “Great Siberia”… (Forsyth, 1992, p. 231)
The coalition described here is a contrast to the propaganda-stereotype of the Cossacks serving fascistic White generals, fixated on restoring the monarchy (although, of course, this stereotype is not completely baseless: the White generals included some notorious examples matching this description). Again, we have to consider the Bolshevik perspective in terms of ideology, geography and chronology: by 1920, they had approached Nikolaevsk via many Cossack strongholds (including Blagoveshchensk itself), and so had become accustomed to treating the Cossacks as indelible enemies of Lenin’s new government in Moscow, and as an organized, armed resistance, i.e., as if their ethnicity entailed that they were born this way, and no compromise could be possible. A full discussion of this factor would be truly outside of the scope of this essay (and, as noted, most of my sources treat it as outside of their scope, too), but the Cossacks have to be remembered both as a particular example of rural opposition against whom the Bolsheviks used genocidal tactics,*8 and, also, as a generalized example of crushing local resistance in Siberia, i.e., a precedent that doubtless informed the norms (the “standard operating procedure”) for conquering and controlling a (formerly-independent) Siberian town that we will see demonstrated in Nikolaevsk.
- *7 Blagoveschchensk is north of Harbin, and by today’s roads is merely 1,600 km from Nikolaevsk-on-Amur — further away than Khabarovsk (the town’s de facto link to central Russia) but still very much in the same region (by Siberian standards, this is “nearby”).
- *8 The so-called “decossackization campaign” continued after the civil war, ca. 1917–1933; it is outside of the scope of this paper to present or evaluate the competing claims as to how many Cossacks were directly killed, with some sources claiming tens of thousands, and some claiming hundreds of thousands, just circa 1919–1920. For this paper, the salient point is that this was a major, ongoing, systematic campaign of massacres, forced relocations, etc., that both involved Nikolaevsk-on-Amur (as there was Cossack resistance in the area) and was also part of the escalation (or brutalization) of Bolshevik tactics before 1920.
§4. Prelude to a Massacre.
In Soviet literature the occupation of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur is referred to as a glorious achievement of the heroic partisans. […]The destruction of the town and the slaughter of the townspeople is either glossed over or described in such a way as to make it appear fully justified. (Gutman, 1993, p. ix)
[This incident] resulted in the massacre of an alleged six hundred Japanese residents and soldiers at Nikolaevsk… [.] The Russian and Japanese versions of the affair were totally different. Each blamed the other for beginning the attack. News of the massacre was first given out to the press of the world on March 28, 1920. At first the affair excited little comment. Later, however, the Japanese government used the incident to around the feelings of its nationals against the Siberians. It was also used as a reason for retaining Japanese forces in Siberia. (Unterberger, 1956, p. 185)
There are powerful motivations to misrepresent and distort this chapter of history, and none of my sources are entirely immune to them. It would be easy, in my own account, to omit any mention of acts from the anti-Communist side that instigated the violence (or destroyed the possibility of a peaceful transition to Bolshevik rule); conversely, some care is required to include this material without seeming to make excuses for the violence in question. Ultimately, the worst possible bias to have is the one quoted from Unterberger, above, of simply disclaiming that “Each [side] blamed the other for beginning the attack”, to then dismiss the whole matter as if there were no questions of principle involved, i.e., as if Communist Propaganda and Japanese Nationalist propaganda were equally invalid. Ultimately, the question of “who started it?” must be referred to the complex issues already explained in the sections above: the definition of the Siberian Intervention was “what started it”. As with the slaughter of the Tanaka Battalion (mentioned in §1), we do need to accept the premise that Russians fighting to expel the Japanese from their territory had the right to do so, inasmuch as “right” has a meaning in the context of a Civil War. Legal fictions cannot diminish the fact that the Japanese were an army of foreign occupation. This was an inconvenient truth that Woodrow Wilson had perhaps forgotten in propounding “non-interference” while placing troops in the middle of a revolution.
The most fundamental factor (under this heading: acts on the non-Communist side that instigated violence) was the suppression of the prior liberation of Nikolaevsk in 1918. The Bolsheviks had briefly taken over the town two years before the massacre, and the would-be revolutionary government was deposed by the Japanese troops shortly thereafter. (Gutman, 1992, p. ix–x) None of my sources really want to deal with this prelude to the massacre: it doesn’t make sense in terms of the Japanese or Wilsonian definition of the mission-to-Siberia, and, conversely, it does justify the Communists’ fight against the Japanese as a foreign army-of-occupation (something the latter were not supposed to be, under the jesuitical terms of the intervention). It is extremely significant that this very brief period of Communist rule (in 1918) was ended when the Japanese troops put the Bolshevik leaders in prison: they remained in prison until they escaped in June of 1919, to rejoin the fight. (Ibid., p. 4)
This time spent in prison may have been enough to transform someone who is already radical into someone willing to commit atrocities against his former jailers, or against the town as a whole. More generally, the fact that the Japanese had put these men into jail could be seen as sufficient evidence that they could not be negotiated with (from the Communist perspective), i.e., that only their extermination could end the occupation. Presumably, local Communists would not have been aware of the tenuous political situation in Japan already described above, i.e., that Prime Minister Hara had come to power with a mandate to end the Siberian intervention, and so on: the experience of 1918 (in Nikolaevsk) could have convinced any reasonable person that the Japanese were both “here to stay”, and inimical to Bolshevik rule. The experience of seeing the Japanese as your jailers, on a daily basis, might create hostility in even the most unprejudiced mind.
The second factor (under this heading) was the murder of the envoy sent from the Communist side to negotiate with the Japanese (and the few White soldiers present) at a crucial juncture in 1920. Sources differ in the details, but I believe Gutman is the most accurate in reporting that the Japanese received this envoy (arriving under the white flag, to so speak) when the Bolsheviks were at the gates of the city (and shelling it), to then hand him over to the White army-generals, who killed him immediately. (Gutman, 1992, p. 17–18) This would have been a dishonorable act in any century (medieval or modern). The brutality of the Communists (in the weeks to follow) was so extreme that anyone might reasonably surmise that the massacre would have happened with or without this provocation, but, nevertheless, it is important to note this ethical-and-strategic blunder on the Japanese side. From the Communist perspective, the Japanese had proven that it was impossible to negotiate with them.
The White soldiers (who are, in Gutman’s account, more to blame than the Japanese for killing the envoy) probably acted out of sincerely-suicidal desperation: they knew that any peaceful agreement between the Japanese and the Communists would lead to their own deaths, and when the agreement was signed, the White commanders (four men, reportedly) held a ceremonial dinner, and then committed suicide. (Gutman, 1992, p. 20–1) This does not justify the execution of the Bolshevik envoy, but it does explain it: these were men who preferred suicide to surrender, and they demonstrated that fact, promptly.
Given that the Communists had amongst their ranks prisoners formerly held by the Japanese (from the short-lived 1918 liberation of the town, etc.) and given that the Japanese were responsible for killing the emissary at the last opportunity for peaceful negotiations, the Bolshevik agenda to simply massacre this (small) foreign army of occupation was an understandable conclusion to come to. Immoral, yes, and even evil, but understandable; however, as will be stated immediately below, the massacre was planned and premeditated (it was not a spontaneous reaction to these circumstances).
§5.1 First the Massacre, then Utopia?
Among the primary sources preserving the history of the massacre (and known to me through Gutman’s account) are the telegrams sent by the Communist side. These confirm (contrary to some propaganda),
- (1) that the Bolsheviks clearly did plan to kill all of the Japanese in advance, i.e., this was not a spontaneous reaction to unforeseen circumstances,
- (2) that the Bolsheviks planned to massacre all of the local supporters for the Socialist Revolutionaries and Social Democrats (etc.), i.e., regarding anyone who supported elected government (the Constituent Assembly) as “traitors” to be killed, and,
- (3) that Triapitsyn, the Bolshevik leader, was indeed following orders from Moscow, and confirming his own initiatives by writing to Moscow, etc.; his actions cannot be dismissed as “banditry”, nor can his leadership be marginalized as some local “anarchist” unrelated to Communism; on the contrary he was getting approval from Moscow by radio-relay message throughout this period. (Gutman, 1993, p. 70–2)
For reasons already described in the earlier pages of this essay, the objectives of point 2, above, entailed the extermination of the majority of the population, as the elections of 1917 had proven (to the Bolsheviks) that the majority (especially in this region) did not support them. As has already been discussed, also the population was very left-wing (supporting the Socialist Revolutionary Party, etc.) but had organized themselves into elected councils called zemstvos that the Bolsheviks saw as targets-for-extermination (and this is shown in the quotation following below). In this context we must understand that the resolution to massacre the “Socialist supporters of the Constituent Assembly” in Nikolaevsk really entailed the massacre of the majority of the population; and so we read the following telegram from Triapitsyn with this in mind:
[Feb. 9th, 1920.] In the name of the Khabarovsk region Military-Revolutionary Headquarters, we salute the Presidium of the Central Soviet, an organization that definitely supports the platform of the Soviet government and is alien to any conciliatory moves toward the right-wing Socialist traitors who are again striving to establish their rule under the slogan “For the Constituent Assembly and the Zemstvo.” All of the Amur from Khabarovsk to Nikolaevsk and the sea is engulfed in an uprising under the banner of the Soviet government […] The news of the rise of Socialist blocs in certain areas and the transfer of power to the zemstvos has been met with indignation. We have declared an absolutely merciless war on all myrmidons of the bourgeoisie and right-wing Socialist supporters of the Constituent Assembly. We hope that the Central Soviet, as leader of the proletarian movement, will take measures to destroy these infamous traitors no matter what mask they may be wearing. (Gutman, 1993, p. 71)
This confirms various theses from the first half of this essay, i.e., that the Bolsheviks in this period were not so much concerned about monarchists (nor religious conservatives, etc.), but, instead, were responding to the ideological threat of closely-comparable competitors from the far left of the political spectrum (who had been more popular in the elections). Another example:
[Feb. 19th, 1920][…][Our] goal is to establish a purely Soviet government in the locales where the right-wing Socialists have influenced certain levels of the populace who can not distinguish between the Soviet and zemstvo government. […][We will continue until] all elements that took part in the overthrow of the Soviet government are destroyed, regardless of what mask they wear or what positions they occupy. The headquarters is turning attention to the areas bordering on Japan, such as Sakhalin, where the zemstvo is in full control and claim in their official press that the present struggle is not concerned with the class struggle but with the overthrow of a military dictatorship.(Gutman, 1993, p. 72)
This telegram (from Triapitsyn’s camp) confirms that the Bolshevik side (in Nikolaevsk) was aware that the other left-wing groups were more of a threat precisely because of their similarity to Communism (“the populace… can not distinguish” between the two, etc.), and, further, that they had decided to exterminate locally-elected councils (zemstvos, etc.) precisely because (at this stage) the Bolshevik struggle was a fight against democracy. Evidently, the powers at the center were terrified of dissent even so remote as Nikolaevsk or Sakhalin voicing the idea that “military dictatorship” itself was a problem, i.e., rejecting the Bolshevik notion of “dictatorship of the proletariat”, preferring to be ruled by the (still left-wing) government that had actually been elected. This was the fire to be stamped out in 1920: this was a threat of a very different kind from the White army-generals, or even the Cossacks (i.e., both examples that had, also, been targeted for extermination).
These telegrams confirm one more instigating factor discussed in §4, that the Communists arriving in 1920 were aware of their deposed local government of 1918 and wanted revenge against the people (perhaps the whole town?) who had deposed them (“all elements that took part in the overthrow of the Soviet government [will be] destroyed”, i.e., referring to the Soviet government that had been overthrown in the past tense, i.e., in this context, this can only mean the government of Nikolaevsk itself in 1918, it cannot make sense for Russia or Siberia as a whole).
As the (propagandistic) notion that Triapitsyn was acting without (or contrary to) Moscow’s orders is widespread, it may be worth mentioning here that we have an eyewitness account indicating the extent to which Triapitsyn’s communications included Lenin himself. (Testimony of P.A. Vorobiev, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 267) Although this includes the anecdote that Triapitsyn (verbally) remarked that Lenin was a fool (criticizing, specifically, the decision to create a temporary buffer-state in Siberia), the point here is just to note that Triapitsyn really was a Bolshevik leader, part of a chain-of- command that reported (ultimately) to Lenin, and that he received some attention (and communications) even from Lenin himself.
On Jan. 20th, 1920, the Japanese and the Whites led a joint sortie against the Bolsheviks (a short march outside of town) and were soundly defeated, sending 300 or 350 troops fleeing back to Nikolaevsk, having abandoned their heavy weaponry in the field. (Gutman, 1993, p. 7–8) The next day, Nikolaevsk was surrounded. (Ibid., p. 9) The execution of the Bolshevik envoy, named Orlov, seems to have followed about five days thereafter; (Ibid., p. 17–8) this Comrade Orlov would receive a grandiose funeral after the new regime was established in Nikolaevsk, indicating that his death was perceived as significant at the time. (Ibid., p. 55) Nevertheless, the Communists did send more envoys.
In the negotiations that ensued, the Japanese were reminded (if they were not already aware) that the Bolsheviks had already taken control of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, (Ibid., p. 9) meaning, in effect, that the war to control the eastern railway and the Pacific coast was already concluded; the Japanese outposts in those larger cities had (recently) ceded local government to the Soviets (or to a Soviet proxy) in keeping with the principle of non-interference. The conditions of surrender for Nikolaevsk were that the (relatively few) Whites would give their guns to the Japanese (or, in other words, the Japanese would disarm the Whites to facilitate the Communist occupation of the town), and the Japanese soldiers would then be allowed to remain armed only for the purpose of guarding the ethnically-Japanese minority within Nikolaevsk; in return, the Bolsheviks promised “the civilian population was not to be subjected to terror, and the property and personal safety of each person was to remain inviolable”. (Ibid., p. 19)
Before Triapitsyn’s Bolshevik army reached the gates of Nikolaevsk, the Chinese aspect of the story had already emerged: in capturing the gold mines outside the city, and massacring the “bourgeois” elements there, Triapitsyn hired the Chinese mine-workers to join his revolutionary forces, with 1,000 rubles each as a down-payment. (Ibid., p. 11) Many of the details of what happened at the gold-mine were preserved in the account of a gold-miner’s wife, Raisa Akkerman, who survived (despite threats of both rape and execution). (Ibid., p. 305–316) The piratical looting described in this episode was typical of the occupation of Nikolaevsk that was to follow, but other details are also instructive: both the husband and wife would have been executed immediately if the lower ranks at the mine had complained about their conduct, but, when questioned, the workers said that their bosses had been good, saving the wife’s life and delaying the execution of her husband by a few days. (Ibid., p. 306) They were also told that they would have been killed immediately had they been Jewish:
“They are lucky that they have an icon hanging in the house.” “Why?” asked the servants. “Because we are killing all the kikes [i.e., Jews],” was the answer. (Gutman, 1993, p. 306)
The ethnic tensions in the scenario were intense, even by Siberian standards. Within Nikolaevsk, reportedly, the Chinese and Koreans took no interest in guarding the town against the Communists (Ibid., p. 9), but the combination of coercion and cash (looted from the gold-mining company’s safe, among other sources) made it possible for Triapitsyn to recruit Asians from the mining and lumber industry, (Ibid., p. 11) even recruiting the Chinese laborers from the town’s leper colony. (Ibid., p. 17) Cash was not the only motivating factor: reportedly, the Koreans were the only ones to remain loyal to Triapitsyn to the end (“Only the Koreans and a few Russians stayed with him”, an eye-witness claims, Ibid., p. 352).
On this score, Dunscomb preserves a significant fact overlooked by Gutman: whether or not the news reached the Koreans in Nikolaevsk, in nearby Khabarovsk the Japanese had responded to the “tensions” in Siberia by massacring Korean civilians (“…with at least three hundred Koreans suspected of being connected to the independence movement killed and an additional one hundred arrested”). (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 120) The precise timing of this massacre is unclear to me (i.e., within the year 1920), and I do not know if the Koreans already feared such a massacre (i.e., if they had surmised the threat from the Japanese troops) before the killings happened. One way or another, the Koreans in Nikolaevsk may have been sincerely anti-Japanese for their own reasons (such as self- preservation), and some may have been pro-Communist for their own reasons, too; but, presumably, they were not motivated by the anti-Semitism that was a significant factor for the Bolshevik side.
Incidentally, the villain of the gold-mine case-study (directing the pillaging, the trials and executions, etc.) is a partisan leader named Budrin, who reappears in our story later, with a significant connection to the Chinese (possibly reflecting his co-operation with them at this time).
With the last of the hard fighting having been on January 20th (i.e., I’m not mentioning every skirmish in this account),*9 the negotiation of the Japanese surrender document was completed on February 27th. (Gutman, 1993, p. 21) Meanwhile, in Japan, wire and radio signals had carried back some vague sense of the situation: parliamentarians were asking tough questions, and the cabinet was (again) debating changes to the mission. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 115) On March 2nd, the cabinet settled on a new plan-of-action that included the evacuation of Nikolaevsk. (Ibid., p. 115) These decisions could have no effect on the ground; however, the orders refusing to allow the Japanese to attack (or counter-attack), definitely did. (e.g., specific orders sent by wire on Jan. 31st, reported by Dunscomb, 2011, p. 116)
- *9 There was a significant but one-sided battle on February 5th (in which the Bolsheviks took over Chnyrrakh fortress, on the edge of town, and then commenced artillery-fire on Nikolaevsk), (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 116–7) but the details are not significant to this study.
The town’s descent, first into dystopia, later into ashes, took place in a series of stages, some typical of Communism, and some unique. With the terms of surrender signed, the local Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks welcomed the arrival of the Bolsheviks with red banners covering the town. (Gutman, 1993, p. 21) An eyewitness describes the speeches delivered, as the conquered offered a formal platform to the incoming conquerors:
Here, Triapitsyn mounted the platform and, swinging his whip, said: “We have occupied Nikolaevsk, but our struggle for Soviet power is not yet over. We still have to take Khabarovsk and Vladivostok,*10 where the zemstvo people continue their treacherous policy of conciliation with the [landowners] and the Japanese, and we must destroy them. We must continue our struggle against… the imperialists in Shanghai, Tokyo and other places, until the time when the name World Soviet Republic triumphs. Here, our Comrade Orlov [i.e., the emissary sent to negotiate surrender] suffered violence, and I hereby declare that in revenge I shall destroy a thousand White scum.”
After Triapitsyn, other orators from among the partisan activists spoke, and all their speeches carried the threat of a pogrom, which immediately produced depression and fear among the population. Mass arrests followed immediately among the military, counterintelligence, intelligentsia, industrialists, employees, and other citizens. (F.T. Paturnak’s testimony, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 252–3)
- *10 From my perspective, this is untrue, and I cannot guess whether or not Triapitsyn was intentionally exaggerating: as of January, 1920, the Bolsheviks did control Vladivostok, etc., although the use of proxy-governments (on paper) allowed the Japanese to avoid the shame of directly surrendering to their former enemies. (Cf. Gutman, 1993, p. 87)
The first phase of the occupation was piratical: looting was violent and thorough (house to house, business to business, of course including the bank’s vault, etc.) working from a list of the wealthy citizens drawn up by the aforementioned Comrade Budrin. (Ibid., p. 26) The notorious Cheka*11 took action immediately, arresting and killing presumed enemies of the Bolsheviks; however, at this early stage, they did follow a procedure of questioning and imprisoning people before they were executed, slowing the process to merely dozens of deaths per day. (Ibid., p. 26–7; 44) The owners of mining and fishing companies were among the first targets for looting, arrest and execution. (Ibidem)
- *11 The Cheka were the “secret police” (and “thought police”) of this era of Russian history, created by Lenin’s fiat, and (in some ways) especially notorious for simple brutality, torture, and “disappearances”; although, of course, other organizations would also have odious reputations for serving the same function in the Soviet Union.
The slow pace of execution (at the outset) did not mean that mass-murder was not already planned and premeditated. An eyewitness who marched with the Bolshevik side described some of the improvised strategies for setting up mass-graves and resorting to group poisoning (i.e., without the usual procedures for trial and execution), and so on:
In order to become a commissar in Triapitsyn’s service, one had personally to kill at least eighteen people. Lists of individuals to be annihilated were compiled by unions, which indicated that such-and-such “skunks” were to be removed, and by the commissars… the pits [dug] in Gorelovo [a village outside of Nikolaevsk] were meant for the miners, who were expected to advance there and for whom a poisoned dinner was to be prepared. Lists of Amgun people to be killed were compiled after arrival in Kerbi. […] Karkovsky was also in possession of warrants signed by Triapitsyn and Nina, which only had to be filled in with a name of the person to be executed [i.e., to spontaneously decide to kill someone whose name was not on the aforementioned lists]. If the partisan to whom he issued the warrant for execution should refuse to carry out the order, he could just write in the name of that partisan, who would then also be killed. (Testimony of P.A. Vorobiev, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 259)
As has already been hinted at, even this low level of procedural formality (with premeditated lists, some semblance, of arrest-procedure, etc.) would erode within a month:
Everyone in the headquarters drank heavily, especially toward the end… Toward the end, killing was done by anyone who wished to do it. Zhelezin said outright that it was permissible and necessary to kill anyone who just looked askance. And in fact they did kill all those whose glances bothered them. Children were also killed. Once… [a Bolshevik] brought a girl of seven or eight years of age to the Revolutionary Headquarters. Zhelezin asked the members whether she was to be considered for or against our government. All unanimously answered: “Of course she’s a skunk and should be killed,” and the little girl was killed. One of the reasons for killing children under eight years of age, among other things, was the need to conserve milk. It was said that there was already a shortage of milk and that it would be needed for the wounded. Then, it was said that during the march, the partisans would be handicapped by children. This was being said in Nikolaevsk also and even earlier, before the town was captured. [Emphasis added.] (Ibid., p. 265)
The final sentence, above, is especially important to my point here: although the early stages of the “utopia” followed a slower pace of execution (with some of the trappings of court-procedure, etc.), the reality was that plans for mass-murder (including specific instructions on killing young children and infants) were already in place prior to the Bolsheviks conquering the town. Both in psychological and Machiavellian terms, this is understandable: the leaders would need to “condition” their followers for the massacre that was to come, to familiarize them with the idea of killing children in advance, etc., and, perhaps, they would want to identify who was more or less willing to engage in such killings (who could be trusted, who could be promoted, etc.).
The use of quasi-legal procedures in the early days of the new regime was entirely compatible with torture: innumerable accounts of torture and beatings are recorded by Gutman, some of them inventive (e.g., torturing a man’s mother in front of him, then torturing him to unconsciousness in turn). (Ibid., p. 27–8) Nevertheless, the new regime was concerned with procedures at this stage, and was concerned with how the formalities were slowing the rate of the killings: (Ibid., p. 44) specific plans were made to massacre about 160 people whom the Bolsheviks had imprisoned, with great care taken as to the “legality” of the arrangements, as normal procedures would have required trials; even though they would be show-trials, this was too time-consuming for so many cases. (Ibid., p. 47) The victims would all be stabbed to death, as ammunition was scarce (something reminiscent of Communism in Cambodia), but these mass-stabbings (of men, women and children, already defenseless in prisons) would be carried out on the pretext of a declared state-of-emergency, planned on March 8th, to ensue from March 12th to 14th (these dates will be mentioned again, below, as significant to the Japanese). Many more people were killed in this period (in the town as a whole), but the fact that this particular massacre (in the prison) was planned in order to obviate paperwork is worth giving some emphasis to: it shows the systematic nature of the massacre, even in aspects that were contrived to seem spontaneous.
Some of the features of the massacre were consistent in both the early and later periods (i.e., with and without legal formalities). The encouragement of complaints against superiors (of any kind, no matter how trivial) to instigate violence against the higher orders (of any company, organization or household) is described in much the same terms in both the first days of the regime and the last. One eye-witness, a former tax-assessor, describes the first wave of purges in the workplace as follows (and, I note, soon enough there would be no normal workplaces in the town, so even the setting reflects the fact that this transpired immediately after the takeover):
[Two Bolshevik leaders,] Zhelezin and Sluchainyi began the rounds of all institutions, where they gathered together the employees, and after delivering a threatening speech, questioned them about higher ranking personnel. This led to slander and accusations. Anyone who, in his own opinion, had been offended in any way or at any time could bring it up, and all those against whom any complaint was expressed were arrested and sent to prison. (Testimony of E.I. Vasilevsky, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 234)
The following description (of the same pattern) comes from the very last days of the regime, situated just outside the town:
There, ten to fifteen people were killed daily in the course of one month [i.e., just in Chnyrrakh alone, a village some walking distance outside of Nikolaevsk] and for no apparent reason. One day someone would complain that so-and-so had borrowed his fishing net the previous year and returned it damaged — the accused man would be killed. The following day a third individual would inform on the first plaintiff that he stole ten fish three years ago — the accused would be killed. (Testimony of P.Y. Vorobiev, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 266)
The main difference between these two periods is the intermediate process of being beaten and tortured in prison before being executed; in the later period, this stage was — regularly — skipped, whereas in the earliest stage they did issue a formal writ of execution, producing a record and report of some kind, etc., with torture and interrogation as part of the process. (Ibid., p. 44)
Many of the details of the new regime illustrate the extent to which the methods and manners of Communism were already cynically manipulated (as a regular affair) by 1920: if there ever had been a period of idealism, none of it was evident when Nikolaevsk held its First Congress of the Communist Party on March 16th. (Ibid., p. 52–7) At this congress, 38 representatives were “elected” (i.e., appointed) to head the local commissariats. (Ibid., p. 54) As has already been stated in a quotation, above, these commissars would be partisans who had already killed 18 victims, personally. (Ibid., p. 259) An eye-witness (who was one of the administrators, organizing the event) complained that the “elections” of the union-representatives were entirely rigged: “…they removed under various excuses the candidates they found undesirable in order to propose their own candidates and thus create a union subservient to themselves that did not include any class-conscious or politically-balanced workers.” (Ibid., p. 253) In fact, the local union-leaders (i.e., the genuine ones, who had not been installed by the Bolsheviks, but who had been advocating for workers’ rights before the takeover) were among the first victims of the new regime: they were rounded up and executed “within two days”. (Ibid., p 28)
This witness just quoted had impeccable Bolshevik credentials, and had even been part of the earlier Communist government of 1918, but was nevertheless arrested immediately after this First Congress (perhaps because he showed signs of independent thinking, or a critique of the leadership-selection process?), and was sent to be tortured and executed like any other “counterrevolutionary”. In his account, he also reflects on how casually the new government marked sincere Communists as “counterrevolutionaries”. From his perspective, we have a description of the prison conditions at this earliest stage, i.e., when quasi-legal norms were still being followed, and the pace of executions-per-day was relatively slow:
In the prison I was undressed down to my underwear and shoved into a cell which already contained over 60 prisoners… The cell was intended at the most for 30 inmates… Even before my arrest many of the prisoners… had been exposed to severe beatings, and during the first night of my incarceration [March 6th], I lived through moments of horror. Starting at eleven o’clock at night, people were taken out of the cell and the beating and whipping began. It was done with ramrods and rubber strips, with gun butts or just with fists. The prison became filled with inhuman screams and moans. The women would utter a piercing squeal and then one could hear only the clang of the strokes. Then, one could hear the sound of bodies being dragged along the corridor and being thrown inert into the cells and new victims being taken out. […][On] 10 March [a group of] up to 30 people was taken to the Amur [i.e., to be executed]. (F.T. Paturnak’s testimony, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 254–5)
The Communists themselves may have been aware that this use of torture was meaningless (i.e., there was no information being gained, and there was no possibility of proving anyone innocent); all of the procedures at the prison just seemed to be a brutal-but-pointless delay before execution, and, thus, they were interested in shortcuts (as aforementioned).
If we relied on the survivors’ accounts alone, we might lack any sense of the “utopian” aspects of the new regime, but these are preserved by the Bolsheviks’ own press: as soon as they captured the town, they “collectivized” the newspapers, and began immortalizing every minor resolution for future historians to behold. (Ibid., p. 50) These events, from the Communist perspective, seem to accomplish in days what we might imagine social planners doing over years or decades:
- Dictatorial collectivization-orders followed immediately after the takeover, with detailed instructions for how the state must now appropriate every sewing-machine, typewriter and musical instrument in the town (i.e., in addition to the generalized looting of all valuable objects), with the Communists’ own newspaper openly stating the threat of execution for anyone in defiance of these plans. (Gutman, 1993, p. 53)
- The population was divided into four classes of laborers, and assigned wages accordingly. All food was henceforth to be rationed, as part of this social schematization. (Ibid., p. 56)
- Specific orders were given for the state to appropriate all cows, pigs, poultry, and paint; every item made of copper and cast-iron would be taken. (Ibidem) It was a whirlwind of appropriations, undertaken by a “government” that could do little with these things aside from warehousing them in the quarters they had just recently appropriated.
- Most of the urban women were rounded up and forced into slave-labor (“collectives”), primarily focussed on making new linens for the Bolsheviks. Many of these women were newly-grieving widows at the time (or their husbands were imprisoned). (Ibid., p. 57)
- The theater was “unionized” immediately, and put to work in coming up with new pro-revolutionary dramas and songs, for immediate performance. (Ibid., p. 60)
In this one, remote town (in just one month!) a miniature cultural revolution took place (akin to the new theater of Jiang Qing (江青) in China), with the first performances following just days after the town’s conquest. Of course, the official newspaper would fail to communicate the drunkenness and revelry of the Bolsheviks, in part elation, in part an attempt to distract themselves from the blood and gore of the (ongoing) massacres. Reportedly, “The theater was filled to capacity at all performances”, and “Attendance was free with tickets issued by Red Army Headquarters”. (Ibid., p. 60) The mood of such a scene, with the body-count mounting each day outside the theater, is hard to imagine. As is generally the case with human nature, the sense of an impending apocalypse led to a certain type of short-term, sensual abandon:
Dancing parties were arranged after some of the performances. These were primarily attended by Red Army commanders and soldiers with their wives and mistresses. Dressed up in the clothing and wearing the jewelry of murdered citizens, the audience attempted to present an image of young Socialist Russia. (Ibidem)
In a small town with both a fur-trade and a gold industry, the distinctive fur coats and necklaces of the prominent citizens were recognizable, and many of the eye-witness accounts remark that they could recognize the gaudy items being worn by the revolutionaries.
Gutman’s account contains many descriptions of the looting (and government “appropriations”), about which I say relatively little here. However, one obvious outcome was the immediate impoverishment of the whole population, not just the bourgeoisie, including many of the peasants:
After my husband’s death [i.e., execution] on 19 April, I was stripped completely of my belongings. They took absolutely everything — both my husband’s and my clothing, the sheets, the bedding, the blankets, dishes — in a word, everything. The rest of the peasants had to give up their footwear, fur coats, almost all the cattle, and all food products, so that now the village is naked and barefoot. (Testimony of E. Kotova, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 328–9)
This sort of intensive pillaging (of peasants, by the state) was a standard feature of “War Communism” in Russia, or, in other words, it became standard practice during the period of the Civil War, up to roughly the start of Lenin’s New Economic Policy. However, the Nikolaevsk government’s pillaging at such a rapid pace is still remarkable: presumably, most of what was stolen was destroyed when they burned Nikolaevsk to the ground, such a short time later.
Given the limited duration of the regime, their detailed involvement in appropriating and reallocating private homes is incredible: one eye-witness explains that after her husband was executed, she and her mother were ordered to abandon what had been their own house, and were then homeless for about a week until the bureaucrats assigned them a portion of a room of a different building that their family had also (formerly) owned. (Testimony of Maria Grosh, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 315) Although this is just one instance, the administrative burden that the revolutionaries were adopting in trying to (thus) exercise totalitarian control over the residents’ lives (only days after the new regime was created) is amazing — and, of course, the regime had no short-term need to control housing in this manner. As a sort of parallel, in terms of the commitment to the bureaucratization and control of daily life, there is probably a great deal of truth to Gutman’s complaint that the precise measuring of foodstuffs in the ration system kept a huge number of people busy “calculating, filling out cards, and performing other completely unnecessary chores”. (Ibid., p. 57) In many ways, in 1920, we seem already to be looking at features of “mature” (and corrupt) Communism, in a town so newly transformed.
It is almost needless to say that the town printed its own paper currency and passports, forcing locals to exchange their old notes and passports for the new ones on pain of death. (Ibid., p. 101)
§5.2 Rape and/or/as Race-Relations.
Rape was both organized and disorganized, with the most systematic aspect of rape being linked to race-relations in the new republic. Generally, the Reds had occupied the most opulent homes when they first took over the town, and the Chinese recruits selected a large office building for themselves, where they lived as one unit. (Ibid., p. 24) In fact, they were not motivated entirely by money, nor by ideology: they had been promised the reward of sex with white women, after the city fell, and the Communists had (characteristically) attempted to bureaucratize this into a system of handing out tokens (“warrants”) entitling each Chinese man to a certain number of rape-victims. (Ibid., p. 61) There seem to have been different attempts to satisfy the supply-and-demand problem for rape under this heading:
There were cases of violence against women, especially by Chinese and Koreans. There were persistent rumors that Nina Lebedeva [2nd in command to Triapitsyn] had promised the Chinese and the Koreans that women from the bourgeoisie would be at their disposal, and when the Chinese demanded that she live up to her promise, she issued warrants for that purpose [i.e., warrants permitting rape]. […]The following game took place at the Realschule during a social gathering organized for the Chinese and the Koreans: all the ladies present at the gathering were issued tickets, the numbers of which were distributed among the Chinese, each of whom was entitled to the woman whose name was written on the ticket. […]This special privilege given the Chinese and Koreans led to complaints from the rest of the partisans and so, it seems, social gatherings of this nature were not repeated. (Testimony of Epov and Naletov, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 272)
Another witness suggests that it was not the jealousy of the ethnically-Russian partisans that led to them abandoning this system of “tickets”, but complaints from the Chinese consul that curbed the attempts to systematize (and to ration-out) rape:
Before the partisans entered the town, Nina [Lebedeva] had promised the Chinese partisans that Russian women would be handed over to them, and in fact some Chinese were given warrants for women, but the Chinese consul protested, and the warrants were taken away. (Testimony of Raisa Miller, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 299)
As with so many “commodities” that were rationed under Communism, there were shortages: indignant Chinese men were constantly protesting in front of the Communist headquarters to demand both their wages and their promised access to (Russian) rape-victims. (Ibid., p. 61) Unlike the Koreans (who remained loyal to the end, as noted above), the Chinese fighters would eventually show their dissatisfaction: attacking the Russians, being disarmed, and then being allowed to wander away, (Ibid., p. 345) although that was in the 11th hour of Triapitsyn’s regime.
Meanwhile, disorganized rape (of Russians on Russians) was so widespread as to be universal: one eye-witness who was on the Communist side reports, simply, “that all of them without exception were raped”, i.e., every woman and girl in the town. (Ibid., p. 261) Some women were taken away to the interrogation-rooms to be raped: one father managed to appeal the fate of his abducted daughter to the authorities, but was told that even if his appeal worked, the girl would probably need to accept a marriage to one of the partisans (i.e., one of her abductors/rapists) in order to be permitted to survive after the experience. (Ibid., p. 263) Another widespread pattern was of pressuring women to become the personal possessions of particular revolutionaries, with each story entailing a different tragedy (involving the real or threatened use of violence against family-members if the woman did not comply, etc.). In some cases, the Bolsheviks enslaved women and girls in a more wholesale fashion:
Girls from the Gymnasium (about 50 of them according to some reports) were taken to the barracks, where they were forced to work. Many of them were violated. Those who resisted were killed on the spot; those who gave in were killed later. (Gutman, 1993, p. 110)
Women were also raped immediately before execution, near piles of corpses, as here alluded to by an eye-witness who himself fought on the Communist side:
They mistreated the women terribly [i.e., raped them] and then killed them. They would grab small children by the legs and throw them into the Amgun [i.e., killing them by freezing/drowning in the river]. […] These atrocities horrified us. (Testimony of I.E. Kazachkov, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 341)
As a town the size of Nikolaevsk did not have many unwedded women, the murder of children was often linked to the rape-and-murder of their mothers:
During that time, several corpses from above kept floating past us daily. They were mostly women and children. Among them I personally recognized Kurliandsky’s wife. Most of the bodies were covered with bayonet wounds and the children usually had crushed skulls. (Testimony of Y.V. Vasiliev, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 343–4)
Finally, the anti-Semitism of the Bolsheviks becomes an issue on innumerable occasions in the testimonies of the witnesses (not really examined within the scope of this essay), and the subject of rape is not an exception:
[W]e also found the corpse of a young Jewish girl 16 to 17 years old, which was terribly mutilated. Her head was barely attached to part of her neck, the hands were hacked to pieces, and so were the genitals. […] I knew this young woman who had come from town. Her name was Anilovich (Testimony of Kovailik and Neliubov, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 331)
So, in short, just as the economy of Nikolaevsk had both a centralized economy of looting on behalf of the state and, also, a disorganized economy of looting on behalf of the Bolsheviks themselves, there was (likewise) both a formal and an informal “economy” of rape.
§5.3 The Massacre of the Japanese.
At about the mid-way point of this drama, the Bolsheviks contrived to eliminate both the Japanese soldiers and civilians in a period of mass-murder that would allow them to (as aforementioned) operate outside of their usual rules-and-regulations; at the same time, they wanted to eliminate a large number of (ethnically-Russian) class-enemies rapidly (both within the prison, and throughout the town). The date for this turning-point in the small dystopia’s history was March 12th, 1920; and the whole town would be depopulated, burned-down and abandoned by May 30th.
Given the unspeakable brutality of the new regime that they were witnessing, one can hardly imagine how the Japanese troops in Nikolaevsk would have responded to the orders they received from their headquarters in Khabarovsk by wire: “[they should] not interfere with the organization of any Russian government in the town, so long as law and order was maintained and the lives of the civilian population were not threatened”. (Gutman, 1993, p. 19) Within two days of the new regime’s arrival, even the most reckless optimist would have lost faith in the Bolshevik promise (made in the terms-of-surrender) to leave the town’s population unharmed. The surreal orders did not just arrive once: on March 16th, again, orders were sent by telegram indicating that the Japanese should simply comply with the Bolsheviks, i.e. despite the brutality of the new Communist regime. (Ibid., p. 41) Contrary to the interpretation of Dunscomb (as pointed out above), these orders do not show the Japanese military trying to subvert the Prime Minister’s good intentions: on the contrary, they are steadfastly following the orders that Hara had worked out with Wilson, no matter how inapplicable they might be to the situation. Conversely, of course, someone in agreement with Dunscomb could emphasize that the sortie of Jan. 20th (in which the Japanese fought against the Reds, and were defeated) demonstrated just such a defiance of the civilian government’s orders (or of the spirit of those orders), and such sorties had been the norm (in Nikolaevsk) until the Japanese were, frankly, beaten.
In 1920, the resistance that the Japanese could offer was limited, apart from the fact that they were under direct orders not to offer resistance: they had about 800 to 900 able-bodied Japanese (i.e., not just soldiers, but able-bodied men of any kind) with only 150 Russians fighting on their side, and one rifle for every 9 men. (Gutman, 1993, p. 9) The Bolsheviks had about 2,000 fighting men surrounding Nikolaevsk in total, of whom 200 were Koreans and 300 were Chinese; however, some of these men (an unknown portion) were stationed outside of Nikolaevsk (i.e., remaining in other villages and strategic positions in the area, such as securing the gold-mine, etc.). (Ibid., p. 61)
The scarcity of guns alone would be demoralizing to any fighting force, but the orders they were receiving from the Japanese headquarters in Khabarovsk (by wire) were even more depressing. Khabarovsk had already surrendered to Bolshevik rule, and they were basically indicating that Nikolaevsk should do the same. Even before the handover of power, the suicide of the local White army commanders (aforementioned) probably reflected a widespread awareness that surrender would mean death. The Bolshevik leader Triapitsyn had already made his name famous with massacres in smaller villages during his long march to conquer Nikolaevsk. (Ibid., p. 7) In these villages, where he established his reputation, “The rural intelligentsia […] were mercilessly slaughtered. The more prosperous peasants were also massacred.” (Ibid., p. 11)
At some point prior to March 10th (i.e., probably just a few days earlier), the town’s Japanese community printed a formal protest against the murders and looting by the Communist Regime, and distributed this as a leaflet, posting it in many shop-windows. (Ibid., p. 32) Although they were probably marked-for-death to begin with, this act of “polite defiance” instigated the immediate mass-murder of the entire Japanese community as follows. On March 10th, Triapitsyn issued a demand that the Japanese surrender their rifles; given what the Japanese had witnessed within the town up to this point, they correctly understood this to mean that they would be executed. (Ibid., p. 34) As has been mentioned above, under another heading, the Bolsheviks contrived a set of “legal” measures in advance (on March 8th) to have a widespread massacre from March 12th to 14th (so that they could obviate legal proceedings in executing their prisoners, etc.). (Ibid. p. 46–7) Thus, the ultimatum presented to the Japanese was part of a larger plan to have a period of “emergency” declared, in order to eliminate the Communist Party’s enemies (including the Japanese, but not limited to them). At 1:00 A.M. on March 12th, the Japanese made their last, desperate attack, fighting on the street-corners, knowing that they were doomed to die, with or without resistance: the Japanese consul dressed his children in their finest clothes to prepare for their execution, and, indeed, everyone in the embassy was massacred. (Ibid., p. 35 & 37)
Gutman devotes some pages to describing the heroism of the Japanese soldiers in this final effort, but it would be spurious to reproduce such details here. The opportunity for the Japanese to be heroes had already passed, long before: they were choosing to defy their orders too late, so that they could die with some dignity, rather than suicidally submitting to the Bolsheviks (as they’d done before). The Japanese were well-organized, and they did do some significant damage in this uprising, destroying the Communist headquarters and causing a combat-injury to Triapitsyn’s leg (featured in the few photographs that immortalize him as dictator). (Ibid, p. 36–7) However, this uprising provided the Bolsheviks with the “legal” justification for outright slaughter they had already planned (since March 8th, Ibid. p. 46–7); they hastened to massacre every last Japanese man, woman and child while the declared state-of-emergency lasted, including house-to-house searches throughout the entire town. (Ibid., p. 39–42)
About 1,500 people were slaughtered in this “emergency period” from March 12th to 16th, including the 160 prisoners aforementioned, nearly all of the Japanese, and many Russian “class enemies” as well (killing about 600 of “[the] most respected townspeople… the local intelligentsia and the business world”). (Ibid., p. 47–9)
Hacking up such a large number of civilians with bayonets and swords (as ammunition was scarce) had a heart-breaking effect on some of the men fighting for the Bolshevik side (and seems to have inspired a plot to change the Communist Party’s leadership, discussed below, in §5.4). An episode is preserved of a Bolshevik (jailed for excessive drunkenness) complaining that he was haunted by nightmares of the look in a Japanese newborn baby’s eyes — a baby that he had killed and added to a pile of corpses. (Ibid., p. 40)
As so much was said in the introduction about the ethnic diversity of Nikolaevsk, it may be worthwhile to observe the various groups that are not blamed for this violence in any of my sources. Implicitly or explicitly, all of the sources reflect the grim reality that the town’s Chinese and Korean communities did not join the Japanese in their final hours of resistance; and, of course, the lack of any sort of pan-Asian solidarity is understandable in the context of 1920 (as both China and Korea were in states of revolt against Japanese encroachment, as has been mentioned (after the March First Movement, the May Fourth Movement, etc.); moreover, the Japanese had carried out massacres of Koreans in nearby Khabarovsk at about this time, as discussed above). It would be gauche to blame anyone other than the Bolsheviks for the violence, but, conversely, we do not have a clear picture of how the Chinese, Koreans or even Muslims fit into this short-lived Dystopian society (i.e., recalling that the town had a mosque), whereas the roles of the Japanese and the Jews (two very different groups targeted-for-extermination) are very clear. Perhaps the ultimate “taboo” in all of my sources is any frank discussion of the role of the indigenous peoples (plural), and this may not be recorded in any written source: one of the survivors’ testimonies is from the perspective of “an Ainu Peasant” who fought on the Communist side. (Gutman, 1993, p. 351) It seems unlikely that the perspective of the indigenous Nivkhi were recorded in Russian, Japanese, or any other language, but they did fight in every stage of this conflict, and so an important part of the story remains undisclosed.
§5.4 Coup and Counter-Coup: Was the Violence Avertable?
Due to the concentration of so much power in one leader’s hands, Communist history always presents us with questions of, “What if?”, especially in cases where that leadership was challenged by a coup d’état. There were indeed other contenders for the leadership in Nikolaevsk, as is almost “standard” in every Communist milieu I’ve researched (Russia, China, Cambodia, or Laos), and some might have been less brutal.
As is also “standard” in the history of Communism, the tendency toward coup d’état challenging the leadership was fueled by the followers’ need for self-preservation: purges and persecution within the Communist Party meant that the people conducting the massacres could never feel safe themselves. Nikolaevsk was no exception: as has been mentioned, above, purges (even of Communists killing people whom they knew to be sincere fellow-Communists) were taking place in the first two days of the new regime. (Ibid., p 28) There were more purges (and more justifications for purges) in the short history of this one-town republic (ca. March to May, 1920) than I could describe in this essay. However, the failed plot of Comrade Budrin is of special significance, and illustrates many aspects of Communism generally.
Budrin has already been mentioned as “a villain” in the violent conquest and looting of the goldmines, outside of town (and witness-testimony records his role in this); apparently, this experience brought about a change-of-heart for the Communist leader, and he dared to speak out against the brutality of Triapitsyn’s regime in Nikolaevsk. (Ibid., p. 57–8) In many ways, Budrin fits the classic mold of a coup-leader, and also of the type of potential-threat to Communist leadership so often eliminated in purges: he had been an active revolutionary since 1918, and (unlike Triapitsyn) he was actually a proletarian (an ex-convict worker, specifically), with widespread popularity amongst the unskilled laborers in the local Party. (Ibidem)
After Budrin dared to speak out, he was arrested by the Cheka. His supporters held protests, supporting Budrin’s (apparently well-known?) program of proposed reforms, that would have put an end to the use of secret trials, massacres, etc., and (even more daring) would have arrested the Communist leaders responsible for the extermination of the Japanese. In response to this, Triapitsyn’s government organized public assemblies and debates, to explain why Budrin had been arrested, and to discuss what would be done next; Budrin’s supporters were invited to attend, and they were variously arrested on the spot or hunted down by the Cheka. (Ibidem) Thus, an attempted “reformist coup” ended with a purge that effectively targeted the only Communist Party members who had pangs of conscience at the brutality of the new regime.
Is there a genuine question of, “What if?” in this instance, or was Budrin really just as brutal as Triapitsyn? One of the indications that his coup really did offer something different was its remarkable connection to the Chinese: Budrin’s plot was not to put himself in power, but, instead, to hand control of the town over to the Chinese consul (!), who would then rule in an interim capacity. (Ibidem)
The implicit wisdom in this plan was something that both Budrin and Triapitsyn were, doubtless, aware of: sooner or later, Japanese re-enforcements would arrive (and it is possible the Communists received warnings by wire-transmission that it would be sooner, not later). When they did arrive, somebody would be put on trial for the ethnic-cleansing that had taken place, and the Soviet side would have neither the means nor the motivation to resist (e.g., Moscow was not going to invade Japan to protect the leaders of Nikolaevsk from a punishment they deserved, making a massive, diplomatic embarrassment even worse). Triapitsyn responded to this same strategic challenge by instead resolving to kill almost everyone, destroy everything, and to then escape, with only the burning cinders of the town left behind for the Japanese to claim (explained in §5.5, below). Budrin’s plan was keep the town intact (killing nobody) with an ethnically-Chinese transitional authority to “buffer” the wrath of the Japanese re-enforcements, and to manage whatever trials and reprisals might ensue in that foreseeable period of reoccupation.
§5.5 After the Utopia, Immolation.
As has already been foreshadowed, all of the brutality, bureaucracy and looting came to an abrupt end when Triapitsyn’s government decided to kill practically everyone (aside from his fellow partisans and their families), to then burn the town to the ground. (Ibid., p. 101–102) Although this was, in many ways, the logical “next step” given all of the factors that have been set out in the prior pages of this essay, it is also a surreal contrast to the absurd attention-to-detail that the Communists had demonstrated in establishing their own newspapers, theatrical performances, systems of union-representatives, passports and currency (etc.). Everything that seemed so permanent was now, instead, be ephemeral: all of the “collectivization” was for nothing; while the gold would be carted away, most of the looted goods would burn.
For a brief period, the regime would make mass-murder the exclusive focus of its efforts, then planting explosives and burning down the town. In this final phase, too, anti-Semitism had an important role: at the top of the list (drawn up at Triapitsyn’s meetings with the Cheka) was the task of killing all the Jews, with the second priority given to killing all the wives and children of (non-Bolshevik) military servicemen (i.e., the men having been already killed, in most cases); several further categories followed thereafter, adding up to about 3,500 more people to be massacred, with 1,500 already in detention at the time this plan was adopted. (Ibid., p. 102–3) Again, I presume that part of the “internal logic” of this decision was the regime’s desire to obviate the usual (quasi-legal) procedures for the execution of the 1,500 prisoners.
For a few days before May 20th, these killings were carried out in a systematic fashion, with heavy reliance on the Korean and Chinese fighters who remained loyal to Triapitsyn (up to this point, in the case of the Chinese, and until the very end, in the case of the Koreans). However, on May 20th the Chinese residents of Nikolaevsk (not the fighters) came to understand that the plan was to immolate the town (perhaps they were told by their countrymen?), and they then packed up and fled. (Ibid., p. 102) Gutman presents this as having a simple cause-and-effect relationship to the acceleration of massacres in the days that followed, but I see no reason to regard this as more than a coincidence (or, at most, as a minor, contributing factor). On May 21st, the Bolsheviks put all of their time and energy into killing the 1,500 persons in detention, with house-to-house massacres following on the 22nd and the 23rd, adding up to perhaps 3,000 dead in this short period. (Ibid., p. 103) Although the most common method of execution was stabbing, drowning (in the frozen river), and so on, usually performed on groups of 20 to 30 at a time, the huge numbers of people to be killed did entail some improvisation: about 500 people were put onto a barge that was then (intentionally) sunk in the middle of the river. (Ibid., p. 107–8)
Although it would be misleading to describe the earlier period of 1920 as anything less than a massacre, this later period of even-more-intensive mass-murder lasted for about ten days, with the burning of the town ensuing from May 28th to 30th. The burning took several days because it was thorough, and carried out in several well-planned stages; dynamite was used, in addition to kerosene, etc., and some unknown number of people were burned alive, but, as has been sufficiently described, the bulk of the killing was done intentionally, and prior to the burning. (Ibid., 107–110) The mass-execution of children has been alluded to before, and is confirmed by numerous witnesses and sources, with one justification commonly reported that the children would have some memory of the deaths of their parents, and so would seek revenge against the Bolsheviks some day if they were allowed to live. (Ibid., p. 111–2)
Although there is no justice for anyone in this story, there is at least dramatic irony. Triapitsyn conquered Nikolaevsk, and briefly organized his utopia there; he carried out his final round of massacres, burnt the city to the ground, and even accomplished his evacuation at the end. However, he had broken down the trust of his followers with so many purges. Some of the Bolsheviks, fearing that they would soon be purged themselves, organized and conducted a counter-coup during Triapitsyn’s evacuation:
There was, in fact, an uprising organized by the artilleryman Andreev, who was made commander in chief. When they saw a mass of floating corpses and recognized some of them, they began to murmur: “Comrades, they are no longer killing just the intelligentsia and the burzhui [i.e., bourgeoisie]. Theyare now going after us. They have started killing the common people.” (Testimony of D.I. Bulivar, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 338)
The revolt organized by Andreev and the partisans was not guided by pity for the victims of Triapitsyn’s terror, and not because they were upset by it, but out of fear for their own hides. When mountains of corpses were lying along the Amur, they were not indignant — these were burzhui [the bourgeoisie], so they deserved it. They were not indignant either, when, even before capturing the town, not less than 300 peasants were killed in Chnyrrakh [walking distance from Nikolaevsk]. […] But when they began to recognize members of their own families… among the corpses, they became agitated, fearing for themselves. (Testimony of P.Y. Vorobiev, in: Gutman, 1993, p. 266)
There is a great deal more to say about the events that follow thereafter, but they are largely irrelevant to the scope of this study. I hope the reader will forgive my brevity in just saying that Triapitsyn was put on trial by his fellow Bolsheviks and was soon-enough executed. Obviously, there are still sources misled by propaganda claims that Triapitsyn was somehow not a Bolshevik, or that the people who arrested him somehow were more Bolshevik than he was (representing another authority, etc.), but this is entirely false: Triapitsyn was a Bolshevik, and his fall was a standard, military coup d’état (i.e., a transition within the Bolshevik side).
§6.1 Conclusions on Geopolitics.
The geopolitical significance of what happened at Nikolaevsk has led many sources (contemporaneous and retrospective) to ignore entirely the lessons-to-be-learned from this chapter of history, and, indeed, to engage in what could be called “holocaust denialism”, in reference to these events.
By 1921, the Americans had hardened their diplomatic position into one of opposing Japan’s presumed imperialism in Russia, with explicit reference to Nikolaevsk, and an explicit refusal to admit the importance of the massacre (i.e., a refusal that is, in my opinion, still an influence shaping the extant sources to this day). On May 31st, 1921, the State Department issued a threatening memorandum to the Japanese, declaring in various ways that the Japanese ought to quit Siberia, that none of the territory the Japanese were then occupying could ever be regarded as a valid possession, further: “the Nikolaevsk issue was not fundamentally a question of the validity of procedure under international law… but of the scrupulous fulfillment of the assurances originally given to the Russian people”. (Unterberger, p. 193) In the context of a well-documented mass-murder, this sounds unreasonable if not pompous: according to this memorandum, the Japanese had signed up for the intervention as part of a joint project with the Americans, and, therefore, they should have gone home when the Americans went home, with anything else being an act of aggression against the Russian people — even if the Russians slaughtered a significant number of the Japanese at Nikolaevsk. The Japanese reply that they had to protect their own citizens in the area (ibidem) seems extremely reasonable by contrast: there can be no doubt that if the positions of the two parties had been reversed, and the American government had been left to avenge the lives of more than 700 U.S. citizens (massacred in the same circumstances), they would have done a great deal more than what the Japanese did in this intervention.
However, neither the left-wing nor the right-wing (in the western world) have any sympathy for the Japanese in this scenario:
[The Japanese] continued to prop-up counter-revolution in Vladivostok and other centres under its control right to the end. […] Japan held on to Sakhalin, allegedly as “compensation” for the deaths of some Japanese at the town of Nikolaeyevsk some years earlier. (Halliday, 1975, p. 97)
Unterberger (quoted in full, above) similarly complains that somehow this whole mess at Nikolaevsk was just a pretext for the Japanese to occupy Siberia, and nobody knows what really happened anyway, as each side blames the other. (Unterberger, 1956, p. 185) Such apprehensions existed in Japan, too, before all of the facts were known: Prime Minister Hara wrote in his diary that this whole mess “smells of some plot by the army in Siberia”. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 120) The massacre is unbelievable in every sense of the word: obviously, many commentators thought that the events must have been exaggerated to serve as some sort of Japanese propaganda, and, after all, the Japanese responded by invading the northern half of Sakhalin island, making the thing seem contrived.
There are other reasons for English-language sources to diminish the significance of the massacre: although written in 1956, Unterberger is still trying to avoid embarrassment for U.S. foreign policy in 1920. In today’s terms, it would be akin to an historian trying to minimize news of a huge massacre in Afghanistan, immediately after the U.S. had ceremonially withdrawn their troops and declared the intervention to be henceforth unnecessary. The U.S. had reason for embarrassment: in 1918 they had been begging the Japanese to send troops to Siberia, but in 1921 the U.S. were instead presenting themselves as the defenders of Communist Russia against the threat of Japanese “aggression”. The massacre at Nikolaevsk was one major piece of evidence that made the American pose (ca. 1921) appear to be a cynical farce, and that (at the same time) made the humanitarian pretensions of U.S. policy in the earlier period (ca. 1918) seem totally insincere in retrospect.
As a result, the English-language sources are now badly skewed by both intentionally-written propaganda (to flatter the American side), and, worse, distorted-and-recycled propaganda inherited by later generations, who no longer understood what the agenda had been (circa 1920) shaping how the earlier sources were written, and why so much was omitted and left vague about Nikolaevsk.
The events at Nikolaevsk are extremely susceptible to manipulation, as they are simultaneously extremely important, and extremely obscure. Worse, they’re an embarrassment to every side involved: to the Russians, the Japanese, the Americans, and even to the Chinese. Nobody is really motivated to tell the truth about what happened, or to deal with why it mattered, beyond a grudging admission that this was a turning-point in Japanese foreign-policy (that had been, previously, set on escaping from Siberia, under Hara’s leadership, due to the legacy of the 1918 Rice Riots, etc. etc.).
Although I’ve explained that Wilson had an unrealistic fear of the Japanese empire in Siberia, the Japanese, also, seem to have had a tremendous fear of the U.S. expanding their control/influence in the area, partially reflecting the tenuous status of the power-sharing agreement the Japanese had sorted out with the pre-revolutionary Russian government in 1907 (i.e., an agreement that would have no validity for the Bolsheviks). (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 34–35) At this stage, there was an unresolved question of what “Russia” meant in reference to the River Amur: in 1918 the recognized government of Siberia was Admiral Kolchak’s anti-Bolshevik dictatorship, based in the city of Omsk. Although Omsk is in Siberia, it is important to keep in mind that it is indescribably distant from Nikolaevsk (ca. 4,500 km as the crow flies, across territory that would be forbidding to traverse in peace-time, even worse during a civil war). If both Western Europe and the United States were believed to be supporting Kolchak’s Siberia as a separate state in perpetuity, then Japan’s intervention would have seemed reasonable in 1918: Japan was acting with the permission of all the western powers, in defense of a separate government recognized in Omsk. In this context, Japan only deployed “400 or 500” troops to Nikolaevsk-on-Amur in 1918. (Gutman, 1993, p.1) That is a very modest detachment, and not really enough to justify the hysteria against Japanese imperialism seen in some of the American sources (although, obviously, the subsequent experience of World War Two has distorted the way that even such a modest detachment might be viewed in retrospect).
The whole drama of Nikolaevsk unfolded on what had been Chinese territory: although the Chinese lost (de facto) dominion as early as 1800 (with the disintegration of Qing power), China had controlled the trade route along the River Amur plus the whole of Sakhalin after a 40 year war fought by the Yuan Dynasty (ca. 1264–1308). (Stephan, 1971, p. 21; Walker, 2001, p. 133) Although various unequal treaties had eroded Chinese territory in the late 19th century, those developments were still (largely) within living memory in 1918; it seems reasonable to surmise that nobody then labored under the delusion that they land they were disputing was Russian (nor that it was Japanese) in any meaningful sense. Thus, there is an important Chinese perspective on this history that is largely unwritten, too: in a very meaningful sense, the mouth of the Amur River and the coast facing Sakhalin was (and still should have been) Chinese territory. The Japanese and Russians were making a chessboard out of a piece of land that was not in any sense their own: one professor of international law at a Kyoto university commented in March of 1918, “Now that China is helpless and Russia on the verge of disintegration Japan has no formidable rival to prevent her rise to a supreme place in the Orient; but her opportunity may pass if she does not seize it.” (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 39)
To say that the Japanese leadership misunderstood the threat posed by the Bolsheviks would be an understatement: not only did they fail to understand the ideology that would lead to the massacre at Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, they continued to think of Lenin’s side as pro-German, and thought of Bolshevism as representing a German threat to the Japanese coastline. (Dunscomb, 2011, p. 38–9) This delusion was not totally lacking in an historical basis, as Lenin’s return to Russia had been orchestrated and funded by the Germans, and was exposed as such by Lenin’s detractors, (Kenez, 2006, p. 27–27) but this remains an astounding indication of the extent to which Japanese military and foreign policy was decided on the basis of “false facts” in this period.
Conversely, we have to give some recognition to the logic of the Japanese empire, in trying to claim the land that lay between two of their possessions. On the most banal level of analysis, the average person looking at a map in a newspaper would have to observe that the Russian-controlled land around the River Amur was simply in- between Japan and Manchuria. From 1911 to 1931, Japan’s designs to colonize Manchuria were a mix of the covert and overt, as the territory remained (at least nominally) Chinese. The simple fact of the River Amur’s mouth being, thus, situated in-between these two was doubtless an incentive factor. The concept of the unified control of these coasts was promoted under the name of “Japan’s New Inland Sea”, with propaganda maps of the (envisioned) new empire circulating through to 1922. (White, 1950, p. 176) If the Japanese had pursued this strategy after the Nikolaevsk massacre, they would have secured control of Manchuria via Sakhalin and the Pacific Coast of Siberia. Although the Japanese did not make the attempt, the debates surrounding this idea (brought sharply into focus by the Nikolaevsk massacre) formalized and rehearsed fantasies of empire that would resume in World War Two. The concept of “Japan’s New Inland Sea” would actually remain one of the most durable propaganda-ideals of the 20th century, and, to be fair, it was much more pragmatic than (e.g.) Japanese plans to conquer Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and other ill-conceived adventures of World War Two.
Again, the indigenous perspective is unknown and unmentioned here: it is difficult to imagine that the Nivkhi, Ainu, etc., would have regarded incorporation into the Japanese empire as worse than what they actually suffered in being incorporated into the Soviet empire. With all the scorn heaped on Japan’s concept of defending Asia for the Asians (i.e., against European imperialism), anyone reading the account of the massacre at Nikolaevsk, above, might come to the reasonable conclusion that European imperialists really were worse than “pan-Asian” imperialists from Japan.
§6.2 Conclusions on Communism.
Communist massacres are fundamentally different from ethnic cleansing, even though they may overlap with aspects of racism and genocide (sensu stricto): most people know what their ethnicity is, and understand it as something fixed from birth. There is, therefore, a sort of personal “security” in this categorization, inasmuch as everyone can know which side they’re on (as persecutor, persecuted, or even as a mixture of the two), if the basis for a civil war is ethnicity; by contrast, Communism leaves everyone in a state of apprehension as to who is the object of persecution at any given time. Anyone can be a class enemy, and even a sincere Communist can be declared a “counterrevolutionary”, and so on. Nobody can have any security in their own class-status (unlike ethnic-status) as each round of purging/persecution unfolds.
In the Chinese context, anyone could be denounced as a revisionist, even a senior Communist Leader who had been presented (publicly) as a close friend of Chairman Mao. Mao’s own wife could be declared a hero of the revolution, and then denounced as an enemy of the revolution. The whole generation who survived Lenin’s era of leadership in Russia faced persecution and purges under Stalin’s leadership. In the Cambodian context, anyone could be discovered to be a member of the “new people” to then be executed as an enemy of the state (i.e., the “old people” [bracheachon chas] were the equivalent to the proletarians-and-poor-peasants, in this variant of the Communist social model).
Nikolaevsk also provides an excellent demonstration of the problem (endemic to Communism) of denunciation of superiors by their inferiors, leading to spiraling purges and counter-purges, sometimes on the basis of a trivial sleight (a ripped fishing-net, or the look in someone’s eye, etc.). Again, this is a generalizable (near-universal) feature of Communism, and Nikolaevsk demonstrates how rapidly it can take hold, in a society with no prior practice in this sort of habit-of-mind. This is, ultimately, a form of grassroots persecution (in Russia, China, or any other example), inasmuch as any individual can contrive to get another person killed (or sent to the Gulag, etc.) simply by reporting the type of accusation they know the government wants to hear (with no evidence, etc.). It would be facile to imagine that this feature existed throughout Asian Communism because they were intentionally imitating the Russian precedent: it seems to be, instead, an organic outgrowth of the class-struggle model when put into practice, and Nikolaevsk shows how quickly people are “schooled” in the model, and then become complicit in a regime based on mass-murder. However gruesome it may be, this is, ultimately, one of the few aspects of Communism that empowers ordinary people: they are suddenly given the power to kill their boss (or almost anyone), with terrible consequences ensuing for society as a whole.
These are general features of Communism (in times of both peace and war) seen in the case-study, but we can identify some ways in which Nikoloaevsk had unique factors exacerbating the pattern.
The Russian elections of 1917 are unique in the history of Communism, and they established Lenin’s Bolsheviks as expressly anti-democratic from that day forward: innumerable authors have reflected that there is (seemingly) no valid reason for Communists to be opposed to elections (and many Communist countries, including China, have constitutions promising voting and/or elections that are never quite delivered-on), but this overlooks Lenin’s historical experience in creating his empire by exterminating the Socialist Revolutionary representatives of an elected government. This is very nearly a literal description of the process of extending Moscow’s control eastward, across Siberia to the Pacific: it was a process of hunting down and eliminating the (mostly-Socialist) leaders of the elected government who had first escaped to Omsk, and, also, of punishing the idea of elected government so violently that nobody would dare to challenge Lenin’s dictatorship. By contrast, e.g., it may be said that the composition of the Lao (Communist) state was merely a struggle against an American army of occupation: the concept of elected government was not really a threat to the Lao Communists in the same way, and, on the contrary, some of them had fond memories of the period when they were elected to Parliament themselves (i.e., as a minority party) in Vientiane. Russia’s anti-democratic struggle was a unique historical experience, in response to arbitrary circumstances (some more arbitrary than others: such as the question of why the Americans were in Siberia, claiming to defend a wayward Czech Legion, etc.), but it was turned into a powerful aspect of Communist mythology, and made into a model of how to compose a new state, to then be widely imitated. As we have seen, the representatives of elected government were hunted down to the remotest ends of the earth in Nikolaevsk and Sakhalin. Moreover, the Bolsheviks wanted to eliminate elected government in principle (with the local zemstvo thought of as a threat to Soviet power, etc.), and, in Nikolaevsk, this involved killing everyone who supported it. Although evil, Triapitsyn was not being entirely irrational in this: he was killing people who had both voted against the Bolsheviks, and had collaborated with the Japanese (in 1918) in overturning Soviet rule in Nikolaevsk. From his perspective, and probably from Lenin’s as well, this was tantamount to treason.
In contrast to the Cambodian or Chinese Communists, the Bolsheviks (in 1920) did not have a broad concept that the masses (or the poor) supported them by default, nor that the leadership should reciprocate this kindness. The fact that (e.g.) you were a peasant did not mean that you were presumed to support the Bolsheviks, nor that you’d be given favorable treatment (e.g., in the looting of Nikolaevsk, even the poorest peasants were deprived of their possessions: every cow, sewing-machine, etc., was taken, as already described, probably causing the poor to suffer more than the rich, while the regime lasted). While the Cambodian doctrine of separating the population into “old people” and “new people” was immoral (and entailed mass-murder), we can say that they did at least establish some class of people as the beneficiaries of their regime: the “old people” could feel that the government worked for them. In Nikolaevsk, as a case-study, we look in vain for any stratum of society equivalent to Cambodia’s “old people”: the Bolsheviks worked for themselves, and treated everyone who was not an armed partisan (in their own camp) as a class-enemy. Again, we must concede that this attitude was not lacking in an empirical basis: the election-results showed the Bolsheviks where they had supporters, and where they did not, in exact percentages. The Bolsheviks did not have the luxury of optimistically imagining (as Mao Zedong did, etc.) that the vast majority of the people supported them by default, or that they could be swept up in a wave of revolutionary optimism even if they had not supported Communism before: Lenin’s power was based on a coup d’état, and then the merciless use of force to suppress the elected government.
Outright genocide, also, had been normalized in this milieu: we may speculate, by contrast, that mass-murder in China was relatively delayed because the violence before 1949 had not trained the Communist Party in genocide in the same way that the decossackization campaign had trained the Bolsheviks. The anti-Semitic aspect of the Nikolaevsk massacre is prominent in this essay because the focus was on the town itself: in the surrounding area (in villages nearby, let alone Eastern Siberia as a whole) the larger story of ethnic-cleansing was, really, the massacre of the Cossacks. The Cossacks provided a model of an entire race of people presumed to be class enemies from birth. That would be a dangerous idea at any time, but in the formative stages of a new regime, actively fighting a civil war, it is dangerous in the extreme. As has already been mentioned, the Bolsheviks had to fight their way through Cossack resistance at Blagoveshchensk before reaching Nikolaevsk, and they did massacre Cossacks in the small towns surrounding Nikolaevsk, too. During the Soviet era, Russians would repeatedly revert to the idea that Jews were, likewise, class enemies (from birth), and Nikolaevsk is one case-study showing this phenomenon. The pattern partly reflects the securitarian hysteria of the Piedmont Principle (explained above, §3), and it partly reflects the logic of “class war” or “class struggle” itself.
Although there is no ineluctable reason for the doctrine of class struggle to exhibit itself in mass murder, historical experience shows that the link between these two is so strong that it seems to be nearly ineluctable in praxis. The Socialist Revolutionaries in Nikolaevsk were class enemies, and therefore marked-for-death from the Bolshevik perspective; anyone who participated in the zemstvo, anyone who collaborated with the Japanese, etc. etc. — the vast majority of the population were class enemies. We need not ask the hypothetical question of what would happen if a Communist government took over power in a scenario where the vast majority of the population consisted of their class enemies: the massacre at Nikolaevsk gives us one powerful answer to this question, preserved in great detail thanks to (1) survivors escaping to Japan, (2) telegrams that were preserved and (3) the newspapers published by the Communists themselves, detailing their accomplishments.
In Nikolaevsk, also, we see the tragic hostility of Communists toward “cosmopolitanism” (a word sometimes used to justify the extermination of Jews in the U.S.S.R., sometimes just used as an indirect accusation of bourgeois status) in a town that had been so remarkably cosmopolitan. Although Japanese imperialism is, doubtless, “bad” in many ways, the period prior to the massacre (1918–1920) demonstrated that the Japanese army could preside over a prosperous, genuinely multicultural town, whereas the Bolsheviks could not. The mandate to massacre everyone who was non-Bolshevik included a mandate to massacre the Japanese and the Jews alike, and, as has already been shown, this was reflected in the preparation of the men prior to the conquest, that they should expect to massacre not only civilians, but also to exterminate small children. This aspect was not a defensive reaction to Japanese aggression: it reflects the totalitarian and homogenizing impulse of Communism itself (another near-universal pattern, seen in societies as self-evidently different as Russia, China and Cambodia).
My own nihilistic interpretation of human nature puts the greatest emphasis on the motives of (1) sex, (2) money, and (3) fame: human beings who are not motivated to commit atrocities by one of the three, may well be motivated by the other two, or any combination thereof. Significant space was devoted to the subject of rape in the new republic for this reason: clearly, the commodification of rape was a significant factor motivating both the Asians and Russians fighting on the Bolshevik side. Is this a common feature of Communist revolutions, or does it reflect something distinctive about Nikolaevsk? Sadly, I suspect this is a more general phenomenon than most sources would like to admit: rape remains under-reported in the writing of modern history, and the model of class struggle does indeed lend itself to patterns of the poor raping the rich, whether that is the Chinese mine-worker motivated by his chance to sleep with an (exoticized) Russian woman, or a genuinely poor-and-downtrodden peasant (perhaps a Russian ex-convict, perhaps an indigenous-minority fur-trapper) motivated by the idea of sleeping with a bourgeois woman, perhaps no-less-unattainable or no-less-exotic, from the latter perspective. Both violent rape and the reduction of people to prostitution through indirect violence (e.g, in order to save their relatives from persecution, or to gain access to basic food and shelter sundered from them by the Party, etc.), are, again, nearly-ineluctable features of Communism, from an empirical perspective. Under the second heading, however, Nikolaevsk differed from many other case-studies in the Communist world by its wealth, and the availability of that wealth in the form of gold (in the bank, in the mines, and in the homes of wealthy people attached to the gold-industry). There can be no doubt that tangible gold motivated at least some of the participants in the massacres, i.e., as an exacerbating factor not generalizable, nor endemic to Communism (i.e., as an historical phenomenon, some Communists refused to engage in looting).
Thirdly, fame and vainglory were major motivating factors, too: rape and greed may have motivated the pillage of the town, and even “paid for” the participation of the pillagers in unspeakable atrocities (e.g., in the promises made to the Chinese recruited at the gold mine, etc.), but it cannot explain the quest for immortalization in the town’s newspaper, nor in the final decision to burn the town into cinders, rather than compromise with the (expected) Japanese re-enforcements. Although there was vanity in creating the utopia, there was even more vanity in reducing it to ashes (so that Triapitsyn’s name would live forever?). The final phase of the destruction of the town was both an attempt to cover-up the crimes of the short-lived regime, and a refusal to dilute the purity of the Soviet vision with another round of compromises under a Japanese occupation. Triapitsyn was not self-sacrificing: his plan was not to die rather than compromise, his plan was merely to kill everyone else, rather than compromising.
The idea that a person could become famous by massacring class enemies (formerly high-profile people, such as members of the intelligentsia, etc.) is itself an extremely dangerous aspect of Communist ideology that is, indeed, generalizable: this puts a motive in place that instigates massacres, again and again, not only in periods of establishing the state, but even in a cyclical fashion thereafter (obvious in China’s repeated returns to campaigns that attacked the relatively-privileged within its own post-1949 structure, etc.). Not everyone responds to this path-to-fame in the same way, but the idea that the purification of society can be accomplished through violence, and that this purification will elevate the individual in social status, make him a hero, make him famous, etc., is a fundamental fault of the Communist world-view, and is the same in China, Russia, or Cambodia.
To close with a comparison, I wrote an essay some time ago reflecting on how rapidly Mongolia made its transition to democracy (South Korea and Taiwan are also important examples, though relatively slow); in that essay, I tried to draw attention to how rapidly all of the features of democracy (good and bad) could exhibit themselves in a society (having no prior experience with democratic government or culture). The main wonder of Nikolaevsk (to which many pages, above, are devoted) is how so many advanced features of a Communist society developed in just one month. Although my best source, Gutman, wishes to depict the Bolsheviks as pirates, merely engaged in short-term plunder, there is a counterposing truth that they succeeded in the total transformation of society almost instantly (although with tremendous violence) — establishing both formal and informal organs of a Communist government, down to the details of managing food-rations, theater-tickets, and holding corrupt Party Congress events, and so on. In this sense, we can say without irony that it should be included in the list of the world’s utopian projects — and, even more menacingly, while it is a failed utopia from my perspective, it was very nearly a successful utopia, in terms of what the objectives of the Communists were at the time.
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